By Jeffrey Swindoll
Baylor acrobatics & tumbling posted in impressive season and managed to go through unscathed despite a brutal schedule. However, Baylor A&T saved its best for last.
The Bears won the program’s first national championship Saturday at the NCATA National Championship team finals hosted by Fairmont State University in Fairmont, W. Va.
Baylor led for the entirety of the meet, but after a couple slip-ups in the tumbling event, Oregon’s chance for a comeback seemed likely in the final event. It all came down to the team routine. Essentially, whichever team won the final event would win the national championship.
After the scores were counted, the crowd was silent as the announcer declared the final scores. Oregon’s score was called out first: 98.87. Then came Baylor’s score: 101.96. Most of the Bears heard just the first number of the score and already knew it – they had just won the national championship. Sophomore Kiara Nowlin and senior Keegan Johnson admitted they still don’t know the final score of their team routine.
“Just the feeling of when all your hard work pays off is the best feeling in the world,” sophomore top Kiara Nowlin said. “It’s so hard during the season that day-by-day you don’t really see a lot of progress, but then at the end, when it all comes together it’s the most amazing feeling.”
“For us, there was kind of no pressure. We felt like we had a great season and anything that happened in the postseason was just going to be icing on the cake. We just wanted execute each heat, each skill and do our best. At the end of the day our best was good enough.”
“We have been through a lot ever since I got here,” Johnson said. “This year, we got the brand new coaches and it was an amazing feeling, just an amazing feeling, just to be able to share this with my teammates. It’s a great way to leave Baylor acrobatics & tumbling.”
Just from looking at the acrobatics & tumbling team during its meets, one can easily tell the team likes to have a good time, head coach Felecia Mulkey said. This attitude of enjoying the moment was on full display in the Bears’ most important meets this season.
Prior to Bears’ semifinal meet, senior Brandi Hanford found a pair of swimming goggles in the locker room. Hanford wore the goggles during the team’s warmups and asked Mulkey if she could wear them during the competition.
Mulkey said she was not sure if the rules allowed it and would instead wear them herself. Mulkey is willing to do anything, within reason, to keep her team happy and motivated. The team and traveling fans loved it, Mulkey said.
“We decided in the locker room that we know we compete better when we’re having a good time,” Mulkey said. “We decided, whatever the outcome, let’s have a blast and I know that sounds crazy because it’s different from most sports. If you’re focused for an hour and a half, sometimes you overthink. This team has decided to not let wins and losses define them. I know that sounds cheesy, but that’s really what carried us through the national championship.”
The Bears have been on a climb all season. Each meet, the Bears would increase their score. The team’s attitude and work ethic eventually shone through: Baylor acrobatics and tumbling finished the season with its best meet score of the entire season (286.690).
“I told them at the beginning of the year in our very first team meeting, ‘If you’re going to win this whole thing, you’re going to have to deserve it and there’s a lot that goes into deserving,’” Mulkey said. “They were very deserving at the end.”
“This team not only improved from the beginning to the end, they improved every single day. We even upped our start values coming into the national championship, most teams can’t do that.”
Thanks to this national championship, Baylor will be one of four teams vying for national championships every year from now, Mulkey said. The excitement surrounding the sport is building and for the Bears to win their first national championship is just another step in growing the sport at Baylor and across the country, Mulkey said.
“Of course there’s going to be more pressure [as the national champion] than there was this year, but I think we’re ready for it. We’re still hungry and we’re not just going to rest on the fact that we won once. We want to win as many times as we can.”