Off-the-mat bonds lead Baylor acro & tumbling to familiar mountaintop

No. 1 Baylor acrobatics and tumbling will ride a 38-meet winning streak going into the 2025 season, as the Bears haven't lost since 2021. Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics

By Zach Babajanof-Rustrian | Sports Writer

Winning the NCATA National Championship may be old hat for Baylor acrobatics and tumbling, but the Bears described their off-the-mat bonds as something entirely unique.

Top-seeded Baylor won it all for the ninth straight season on Saturday, as it took care of No. 3 seed Gannon by a score of 272.220 to 269.315 at the Feaster Center in Fairmont, W.Va.

Junior top and tumbler Jordan Gruendler said the team is filled with chaotic athletes, but they know when to focus.

“I think the range of personalities we have on the team basically realize that these two people that you meet are as close as friends,” Gruendler told reporters after the Bears’ victory over No. 8 seed Fairmont State in the quarterfinals on Thursday. “I mean, it’s so many different people that pull together to become just one. [It’s] so incredible to see.”

Head coach Felecia Mulkey has called this season’s bunch “wild,” and senior base Riley Chimwala echoed her statement and added that this has been one of her favorite years at Baylor.

“I think because the team just rallies around each other so well — we’re so encouraging [and] have so much fun,” Chimwala said on Thursday. “I think above all else, we’re going to have fun.”

The Bears also earned individual awards on Sunday morning. Chimwala and Gruendler were named Most Outstanding Athlete of the Year and Specialist of the Year, respectively. This is the second year in a row that Gruendler was awarded the title of Specialist of the Year.

Freshman top and tumbler Payton Washington also earned Freshman of the Year. Washington may not have been on the team last season, but after the team heard about the incident Washington was in, they supported her by “tattooing” with a Sharpie the words “For Pay” on themselves.

“We knew [Washington] was going to be back,” Mulkey said in a Zoom press conference on Wednesday. “And we knew she was going to be wonderful, and we didn’t care if she ever flipped again. We just wanted her with us. But it was like, we’re here and we can do this. So let’s do it for her.”

Mulkey also talked about how the seniors on this roster were quiet but powerful leaders, which helped some of the underclassmen step up in big spots. Senior tumbler Kristen McCain said she suffered an Achilles injury but was proud to see sophomore top and tumbler Savanna Cecil compete in place for her.

“I trusted Savanna, and Savanna is such a great human, and I was so happy for her if anything,” McCain said. “And just knowing that made it not as difficult.”

Mulkey said she’s proud to have coached a team with such a unique bond this season. The head coach was able to secure her 13th national championship, and she said she’s grateful to have surrounded herself with amazing staff and athletes.

“We just keep trying to do the right things for the right reason,” Mulkey said after the Bears’ win over the Golden Knights.

When asked about being the probable GOAT, or greatest of all time in terms of acrobatics and tumbling, Mulkey said that same love needs to be spread around to others — not only at Baylor but across the NCATA.

“There’s so many people who are in our program that make us be able to do what we can do. I’m just a loudmouth you guys; I really am just a loudmouth,” Mulkey quipped. “There’s so many people. I’m standing on their shoulders.

“So I appreciate [the] recognition, but let’s talk about those assistant coaches and what they’re doing out there too. Our staff, our academic coach — it’s a village, it really is.”