Today is a day of celebration in the Acrobatics & Tumbling community. A day that many remarkable women fought to achieve in a mission to provide unique competitive opportunities for young women. There are four women in particular, Felecia Mulkey, Mary Ann Powers, Colleen Kausrud, and Kristi Kiefer, that set the vision of creating a new sport and made it a reality.
Felecia Mulkey cheered at the collegiate level at Kennesaw State following her time at Southern Union. Mulkey served as the head cheerleading coach at her Alma Mater, Kennesaw State, where she was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019. Mulkey began her career in Acrobatics & Tumbling at the University of Oregon where she was the head coach of the Ducks until 2014. In June 2014, Mulkey departed the University of Oregon to pursue an Acrobatics & Tumbling head coaching job at Baylor University, where she currently leads the program.
Mary Ann Powers cheered at the collegiate level at Southern Connecticut from 1978-1982, where she led as team captain during her junior and senior years. Powers began her collegiate coaching career as the head cheerleading coach at Quinnipiac University. Powers transitioned into leading the Quinnipiac University Acrobatics & Tumbling team as head coach in 2009, where she has remained since.
Colleen Kausrud served as the head cheerleading coach at Azusa Pacific University, beginning her collegiate coaching career in 2004. Kausrud transitioned the Azusa Pacific competitive cheerleading team into the Acrobatics & Tumbling team. In 2013, she was recognized as NCATA Coach of the Year.
Kristi Kiefer was the head cheerleading coach at Fairmont State University and later transformed the competitive cheerleading program into Acrobatics & Tumbling. Kiefer has been named NCATA Coach of the Year twice. Kiefer recently announced her retirement from her position as head coach of the Fairmont State Acrobatics & Tumbling team, but her legacy will be everlasting. Although Kiefer has retired as head coach, she will continue to serve as Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator at the university.
All four founding coaches share a background in coaching collegiate cheerleading. And each had a vision of something more. The University of Maryland made competitive cheerleading a sport in 2003, which facilitated a movement. Azusa Pacific University, Fairmont State University, and Quinnipiac University were all interested in elevating their current cheerleading programs into competitive cheerleading and making it a sport, while the University of Oregon and Baylor University planned to create competitive cheerleading as an additional women’s sport.
These four women quickly identified they shared a common goal that was centered on creating opportunities for a diverse set of potential student-athletes. They wanted to compete in a manner that focused on athleticism and execution, and filled a gap for young women who were not served at the time by existing competitive opportunities. To determine how they would proceed, there was continuous communication among coaches and administrators from the founding schools leading up to the first Coaching Summit at the University of Maryland in 2010. The group came together to discuss the operation of the sport, including what it would be named.
The focus has always been about the opportunities that the collegiate athletics experience provides.
“I always loved sports and ended up going to a college on a full ride scholarship as a cheerleader,” said Mulkey. “At Southern Union, I was treated as an athlete, and no one questioned that we were athletes. I think for me my passion came from having that opportunity, which was life changing. I’m the first person in my family to go to college and that’s the reason I got to go.
“We wanted to take these skill sets, which are comprised of different discilines of gymnastics and cheerleading, that so many young women are passionate about, and put them in a nice little package at the collegiate level,” Mulkey explained.
Mary Ann Powers was compelled to Acrobatics & Tumbling because she wanted “to make sure that [her] student-athletes and the student-athletes participating in these very difficult skill sets, whether from gymnastics or competitive cheer, had the opportunity to compete at the highest level with the best possible benefits that could be afforded to them.”
Colleen Kausrud was drawn to the notion of Acrobatics & Tumbling because the sport was based purely on the athletic ability of the student-athletes.
“As a coach and person, I’m very competitive. When things don’t seem fair, you don’t want to coach that. It’s very frustrating. I wanted to do something that wasn’t based on camp or clothes or anything of that nature,” explained Kausrud.
Kristi Kiefer highlighted how all four founding coaches had a common goal, which brought them together and made them so successful.
“I’ve always been involved in athletics and always wanted to provide more opportunities for females. I wanted the recognition and resources for my student-athletes. The other founding coaches all pretty much had about the same reasoning behind it too.”
The first Acrobatics & Tumbling meet was held in 2010. The inaugural season the included six founding schools – Azusa Pacific University, Baylor University, Fairmont State University, University of Maryland, University of Oregon, and Quinnipiac University. That summer the National Collegiate Acrobatics & Tumbling Association (NCATA) was formed, led by administrators from the member schools. In 2013, USA Gymnastics adopted Acrobatics & Tumbling as a discipline under the “Gymnastics For All” program. The dream was taking shape, and interest grew around the country from athletics administrators considering the addition of a women’s program.
Today, there are 32 institutions sponsoring varsity Acrobatics & Tumbling programs, and the sport continues to rapidly grow. Due to the hard work and dedication of the four founding coaches and the administrators that took a chance on this sport, over 650 student-athletes competed in Acrobatics & Tumbling at the collegiate level during the 2020 season. The progress of the sport is fueled by the variety of participation opportunities it provides to young women who train in gymnastics and cheerleading.
Acrobatics & Tumbling gives female student-athletes the opportunity to specialize in specific skills. Kiefer explained how the format of the sport, varying positions, and number of events require a range of skill proficiency.
“For instance, just because you’re a good tumbler, it’s not going to make you good in acro or make you a good base or top. Because we broadened out through our different events that we have within our meets, it has given us the ability to provide multiple opportunities for different athletes. Of course, you have some athletes that can do it all, but you don’t have to be able to do it all. You can specialize,” said Kiefer.
“The beauty of it is whatever piece of the skillset you are training, there is a place for you on an Acrobatics & Tumbling team. There’s no height limit. There’s no weight limit. This is all about athleticism, and athleticism looks different on different people, and that’s what I think is so beautiful about this sport,” stated Mulkey.
As opportunities were created, the NCATA worked to ensure that the sport developed in the model of NCAA sports, including compliance with divisional and conference rules. The organization agreed that each new program would be implemented as a varsity sport in order to meet Title IX requirements.
A monumental milestone for the sport was when NCAA members in Division II and Division III voted to approve Acrobatics & Tumbling as an emerging sport for women on January 25, 2020. On June 17, 2020, members in Division I voted to approve Acrobatics & Tumbling as well, ensuring NCAA emerging sport status in all three divisions would become effective today (Aug. 1, 2020).
Mulkey reflected on a quote that has always stuck with her by Margaret Mead. It reads, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” No doubt, this small group of founders and administrators changed the world for many women and continue to do so today.
“Personally, if anyone had told me that twelve years ago this would’ve been the road I was walking on, I really wouldn’t have believed it. I feel like I was blessed. I feel like someone was looking over me and decided to give me a focus in something I’m passionate about and that is about coaching and mentoring, said Mulkey. “It wouldn’t have been the complete experience had it not been offered the full-blown way because that’s what I wanted for my athletes. It allowed me to take something, and get the expertise of an athletics department beneath my wings. Once you have all of these groups around you making you a better human, showing you the way, and allowing you to pass that onto your athletes, I mean it doesn’t get better than that.”
News of NCAA emerging sport status left Mary Ann Powers thinking of future student-athletes.
“When they announced it, I fell to my knees, and that’s the truth… I think for me it was just finally realizing that it was real. This is real, and this is going to be something for little girls to look forward to when deciding to do these skill sets,” explained Powers.
Colleen Kausrud explained how NCAA emerging sport status “is absolutely huge. It was a dream that we all were a part of and got to put our little two cents worth in, and I think that part of it is just so fulfilling. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
“I’m getting close to retirement, so I didn’t know if I was going to make it to that point as a coach. I knew it would eventually become a sport, but I didn’t know if I was still going to be coaching at that point. I’m definitely satisfied and just feel accomplished that we’ve been able to do that,” Kausrud continued.
“How often can someone say that they are a part of creating a new sport, and how often is a new sport created? It is not a takeoff from another sport. This is a completely new sport. I think being a part of that inception from the beginning, from even creating the name of the sport, it is just so rewarding, said Kiefer.
“Additionally the professional friendships that I’ve made throughout these past 12 years, especially with the other three wonderful women that I am sharing the space with, as well as other people in the organization means so much. Everyone in the organization has such a high level of integrity and wants to work hard and do things right and to see it through,” Kiefer explained.
It has been a long road, and as many say it was “a road less traveled” by many coaches, administrators and student-athletes, which makes the news of NCAA emerging sport status all the more rewarding for the Acrobatics & Tumbling community.
“I am very proud of our small group of humans that did this. NCAA emerging sport status is what we’ve been shooting for for so long. I thought at some point we would get there and I could relax, but I can’t now. We want to get to NCAA championship status. We have many more celebrations to come,” Mulkey exclaimed.