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AtQ Exclusive: TS&G Head Coach Felicia Mulkey

As many of you know, I'm really excited about Team Stunts & Gymnastics. The idea of not only starting a new program, but essentially creating a new sport is fascinating. TS&G head coach Felicia Mulkey was gracious enough to give me part of her day to talk about what the sport is, and why we should be excited to have a program like this at the U of O. Also, the Ducks' first home meet will be Sunday, February 21st at Mac Court. We will be hosting Ohio State, Georgia, and Azusa Pacific. I'd love to see a strong AtQ showing at the meet. Okay, interview after the jump.

[Note]: This interview isn't exactly word-for-word, we jumped around a lot while talking so I just organized it into a more readable format.

Takimoto: On its most basic level, Team Stunts & Gymnastics is a combination of competitive cheerleading and gymnastics. Can you talk about the roots of the sport and what it's actually all about?

Felicia Mulkey: The first thing to know is that this sport did evolve out of cheerleading. If you look at the evolution of it, cheerleading came from simply standing on the sidelines with a megaphone to eventually merging with gymnastics, and at some point someone decided they wanted to do a competition. The very first competitions started with a cheer (how well they led the crowd), a dance, and a pyramid, and that's what it was. Over the past 20 years, it has evolved into this ridiculously huge company called Varsity Brands which has basically monopolized the whole thing. On the East Coast especially, all-star gyms started in the '90s, where parents pay thousands of dollars a year and kids are being trained as competitive cheerleaders from the age of 4. They travel the country cheering in competitions, and never set foot on a sideline. That created this divide between traditional cheereading and competitive cheer.

When you say the word "cheerleading" to a group of people, you get twelve different responses of what it means, sometimes with a negative perception. We love our cheerleaders here at Oregon, our cheerleaders are gorgeous and they're the face of the university, but when we started this as a sport there was a lot of skepticism about, "How can cheerleading be a sport?" And you can understand the skepticism, you know, how can a team practice all year and go compete once at the end of the year and have that be a true national championship? And a lot of times cheerleaders are picked based on things other than their athleticism. What people don't realize is there is a new generation of kids that are coming up right now that have trained since the age of 4 at nothing but competitive cheer, or have come from club gymnastics into competitive cheer. These kids are phenomenal athletes who don't want to be on the sideline, and have nowhere to go.

Maryland started this a few years ago by making competitive cheer, and they have been pushing for NCAA status. We brought this to Oregon, we realized the word "cheer" wasn't going to fly, not on the West Coast. So we changed the name. Also, to make it more college friendly and to fit it more into the sports realm, we changed the look of the uniform, we have started to keep stats on individual athletes, and we changed the meet format to more than just one routine, which makes it more appealing in terms of hosting a home meet and generating revenue. The great thing about Oregon is that we have a phenomenal cheerleading team, so girls coming in have the option to go do the sideline thing, or to the competitive thing, and I'd love to see every school do that.

The most appealing thing for the NCAA is that it meets interests and abilities for women. This is the fastest growing female sport in the country. I don't want to go off the top of my head with numbers, but there about 118,000 high school participants (not counting all-star gyms), compared to about 2,000 in a sport like crew. This is huge. And we're now fitting it into a sport format, which is good not only for the NCAA but for the athletes. In traditional competitive cheer. Everything is very anonymous. I go to recruit at high schools, it's so hard because everybody looks the same. So the athletes would go out and do a 2:15 routine, and they're done. In polling athletes and talking to recruits, the thought of going to a meet format, where they get to compete in a smaller group on behalf of their team, is amazing. When you watch a routine, it's like fireworks because there's so much going on, and you don't really even know what to watch, which is unfortunate because it looks cool, but you don't get to take the time to watch appreciate the individual elements. In a meet format, you get to see the four elements individually, and then you get to see the team routine. So you get to appreciate the athleticism of girls lifting other girls the same size as them, which is amazing once you stop and look at it.

T: What do you say to skeptics who say schools will only adopt this sport to meet Title IX numbers?

FM: Lemme see if I can say this without being misunderstood. I can understand, at first glance, why people would say, "Oh, well schools will just use their cheerleading team." But if you step back and look, that's not what's happening: not at the University of Oregon, not at Baylor University, not at the University of Maryland. I would be opposed to schools who would literally take their sideline cheerleaders and let them continue to do what they're doing, and let them be counted for numbers. That's something people miss when they look at it at face value. If you've seen both teams, you'd know that what they do is completely different. It's a different type of athlete, and a different mindset, neither one any better than the other. Both teams serve separate purposes. If they skeptics step back and look, they'll go okay, it's not okay for a school to use their cheerleading team for gender-equity numbers, but if it's handled the way Oregon has handled it, it's completely different. Taking a team and using it is cheating, but creating a new team and opening up 36 opportunities for females at a college level, I think that's pretty important.

T: Can you talk about the scoring system, and what sport fans should look for in terms of knowing what's good and what isn't?

FM: You have to think about gymnastics, where every element we do has a starting value. I could throw out some terms to you, and you'd be like, "I have no idea what you're talking about," like for example, the stunt event is the first event in every meet, and there are four heats. In each heat, four athletes compete, two bases, a flier, and a back base - so we actually recruit and have positions on our team. One stunt sequence may include a "rewind", to a "left lib", "tick tock", "double out". All those things would be taken together, there's an equation that handles it, and it gets a starting value. Just like in gymnastics where if you do a vault with a value of 9.8, and you do it perfectly, you get a 9.8. It's the same thing with this. What people will appreciate is that there is almost always more than one person on the floor. One person can nail a tumbling pass. It's much harder for two people to perfectly synchronize a tumbling pass and both nail it, or for all four members of a stunt execute everything perfectly. For our meet on Feb. 21st, we will have a "cheat sheet", so you can get an idea of what's going on, how everything is scored. This first year is basically educational for everybody.

T: What made the University of Oregon an appealing place to start this program?

FM: I think it's the mindset, not only of the University, but of the city of Eugene. The fact that we changed the name is proving that it's working. We came in and said, "You know, competitive cheer, the name isn't flying." And our department was like, "Great! We'll just change the name and everybody will follow." And they are. It's difficult dealing with my East Coast colleagues who aren't faced with the same challenges I'm faced with. They could call it Competitive Cheer the rest of their lives and never talk to anybody who didn't understand it, while I encounter people like that every single day. The University has really grabbed hold of the idea that we're on the forefront. Other schools would look for someone to follow. But Oregon looks at it like, "Oh, this is the best way to do it. Let's just do it and blaze our own path." And I love it.

T: What is the appeal for other schools to adopt a TS&G program, and how involved are you with developing the sport on a national level?

I'm very involved, partly because I'm a loudmouth, but also because our program is really shaping the face of the sport. The biggest issue with competitive cheer is that it's currently run by a for-profit organization. We, along with the other school nationwide who have adopted this as a varsity sport, created the National Competitive Stunts & Tumbling Association in the image of the NCAA as a way to create our own path to a national championship. Renee Baumgartner and Mike Bellotti have been a huge help in putting Oregon at the forefront of shaping this organization. The biggest appeal for schools are the roster numbers, 36 players on a roster, as well as its affordability, you don't need a dedicated facility for this sport, and of course the gender equity issue. There are so many women who get cut from college cheerleading teams who are too tall or don't have that certain look, or whatever. These are phenomenal athletes that don't have anywhere to go. This is their place to go.

T: Do you see potential problems arising from trying to promote a sport called Team Stunts & Gymnastics to a school with an NCAA gymnastics team?

FM: It's tough, and I'm not sure Team Stunts & Gymnastics is going to be the name nationwide. You could totally see a gymnastics coach going, "What the hell? We already have one." I totally get that. Azusa Pacific, which is an NAIA school down in Southern California that is really following our lead, thought the same thing, and is called their team Stunts & Tumbling. I'm not sure why we went with the gymnastics angle, I think it was to make a connection immediately, and also I think every member of our team but four was at one point a competitive gymnast as well, so the name appeals to those athletes. But most school administrators hear Stunts & Gymnastics and get it, though they don't know what the name would end up being at their school. When we bring this to the NCAA, we're kind of at the mercy of them. If they want the name to be Stunts & Gymnastics then that's what it'll be. Many people don't realize how many different kinds of gymnastics there are either, so this would honestly just be a different form. But the idea of what we're doing has not been difficult to sell to universities at all.

T: Where do you see the sport in the future?

FM: Come on Matt, we're gonna be big time! I would like to have Emerging Sport status in three years, see the NCSTA grow to have Division I, II, III NAIA, and club programs, to be holding NCSTA national championships in three or four years, and then we'll get forty school like that and be an NCAA-sanctioned sport. I do think that as popular as it is, the sport is in its infancy, and we're all going to be surprised in ten years at what's going on.

T: With TS&G's creation coinciding with the Matthew Knight Arena construction, were you able to get what you needed out of the new arena?

FM: That's a great question, and no we did not, although there are people looking out for us. I think what we'll do is keep our practices and locker rooms over here in the Mo Center, and eventually get another set of mats in Matthew Knight Arena, but we probably won't have a locker room in the new arena. That came along as I was coming in, and after a year of practice people are realizing, "Hey, Team Stunts & Gymnastics may need to be at the arena sometimes." So they're working with us, and they've been great.

T: How were your interactions with Nike in designing a completely new uniform concept, both functional and style-wise?

FM: It was amazing. When I came in, the first thought was competitive cheer, so when we first met with Nike I told them, "We really need to change the look of the uniform." They asked me what I wanted it to look like and I said, "I have no idea, I've been in the industry too long, so I think I'm boxed in." I gave them a video to show them what we do, and said, "All I want is for when my team takes the floor, I don't want people to look and go, 'Oh, that's the Oregon cheerleading team.'" That would take away from our cheerleaders, and I don't want that. So Nike came back with the uniform design, and I absolutely loved it. When my team takes the floor, you don't see cheerleading. On the marketing side, it really works because Nike pretty much standardized the uniform. Teams like Quinnipac and Maryland followed suit. Their uniforms aren't as good of course, we are Oregon. So we're hoping these will become the standard uniform like basketball or volleyball, and it'll be written into the NCSTA by-laws. Nike just set the bar the first time out, and all the other schools are like, "How do we get those uniforms?" We thought we would be way outside the box this year, but everybody's on board. They're not getting Nike uniforms, so ours will be the best for a while.

Again, thanks so much Felicia Mulkey for taking the time to talk and clear up some of the mystery surrounding what TS&G is and will be. The team has upcoming road meets in Georgia and Anaheim before returning home for the first-ever home meet in Oregon history. I'd encourage everybody to come check out the meet on February 21st at Mac Court, when the TS&G Force starts to exact slow, glorious revenge against Ohio State by out tumbling, stunting, and tossing the Buckeyes, as well as Georgia and Azusa Pacific. Go Ducks!