Story by Jazzi Plews | Photos by MJ Routh
“There’s always going to be a reason why you can’t do something. Your job is to constantly look for the reasons why you can,” said Shannon Lee Miller Falconetti, member of the historic “Magnificent Seven” gymnastics team that took home the gold medal for Team USA at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
Miller’s grit and optimism parallels Baylor’s own, Felecia Mulkey.
Felicia Mulkey — often called “Coach Fee” — is the Head Coach of Baylor Acrobatics & Tumbling. She has led her team to 12 National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA) titles, has mentored 12 athletes to All-American status and was named 2018 NCATA coach of the year.
Mulkey grew up in Whitesburg, Georgia, a town with a population of just under 600 in 2017. Beginning her journey at the age of six, Mulkey trained in gymnastics with a dream of one day becoming a professional gymnast. Her dream was cut short when her parents found they could not afford the expenses that next-level gymnastics demanded.
Mulkey changed directions and gained an interest in cheerleading. After joining the high school cheerleading squad, Mulkey developed a passion for being part of a team and representing her school, something she had not previously experienced as a gymnast. However, for Mulkey, cheerleading was missing something. “I loved the team aspect of cheerleading, but competition is where I thrived. I really missed that,” Mulkey said.
When her days of cheerleading neared an end, Mulkey set new goals to attend college and pursue a bachelor’s degree. As the first member of her family to apply to college, Mulkey did not know where to begin. College was an intimidating prospect, but Mulkey was undeterred.
“All I knew was that I had to do something with my life,” Mulkey said. “I had to get out of the tiny town I had grown up in and create my own future.”
With the support of her elder brother and “biggest fan,” Chris Mulkey, Mulkey applied to various colleges in Georgia. When it became apparent that she could not afford a college education on her own, she pursued an opportunity at Southern Union State Community College in Alabama, which offered scholarships to the competitive cheerleading squad.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but my transition to Southern Union is what changed my life,” Mulkey said.
Joining this squad allowed Mulkey the opportunity to pursue a college education, utilize her gymnastic abilities, represent her school and experience life as a respected student athlete.
“I see what being a student athlete does for the girls on my team now, being respected for what they have trained for their whole lives, and it’s the same amazing feeling I got when I was in college,” Mulkey said.
After two years on the cheer squad at Southern Union State, 21-year-old Mulkey transferred to Kennesaw State University to continue her education and competitive cheerleading career. Upon graduation, Mulkey secured a position as Director of Marketing in Athletics at Kennesaw State. Despite landing a respected job in the athletics department, Mulkey’s heart was set on coaching.
“I decided to ask the athletics director if I could coach the cheer squad alongside my official job responsibilities,” Mulkey said. “He agreed, under the conditions that I would be paid $50 a month for coaching, and if he received any complaints from parents, I was fired,” she laughed.
Mulkey said she was determined to fulfil her goal of creating a successful, competitive cheer team and developing strong, powerful young women who were unafraid to use their voices and follow their dreams.
Angela Ucci, a former cheer squad member at Kennesaw State University and current assistant coach for Mulkey, witnessed first-hand how Mulkey influenced female athletes.
“During my time at Kennesaw, Coach Fee taught me how to be confident in myself and not care what other people think,” Ucci said. “I was a really quiet high-schooler, and then when I got into college, the way [Mulkey] worked her program allowed me to come out of my shell and find my voice. Since then, I have never looked back.”
Under Mulkey’s guidance, the Kennesaw State cheer squad was transformed into a program that dominated the nation. Mulkey’s team placed among the top three during national competitions from 2001 through 2007, as well as rising to the Division 1 level in 2006.
“The team I developed didn’t look like your average cheer squad,” Mulkey said. “These athletes were all about competition. They didn’t care about the sidelines. They just wanted to go out there and compete.”
As Mulkey’s involvement and experience grew, she became increasingly frustrated with the lack of regulations within competitive cheerleading, increasing her desire to expand the sport and conquer the lack of respect she felt the women on her team received.
“My frustration just developed more and more over the years because, instead of the athletes on my team receiving the respect they deserved, they were constantly battling the ‘cheerleader stereotype,’” Mulkey said.
She began the 2008 competitive cheer national championships believing it was her last as a head coach. This all changed when Mulkey met Renee Baumgartner, Senior Associate Athletic Director for the Oregon Ducks.
Baumgartner organized a meeting with Mulkey after watching her team perform. The women shared similar opinions—If competitive cheer would ever be taken seriously, the sport needed to completely change, including the stereotypes associated with it.
“Renee and I both realized that if we did not alter competitive cheer significantly, these young women would be fighting for respect for the rest of their lives,” Mulkey said.
Three weeks after Mulkey’s meeting with Baumgartner, she was hired as the Head Coach at Oregon University for a new competitive cheer program, which entailed a number of new challenges. Mulkey had no team upon her arrival. She was expected to build everything from scratch. In addition to the pressure and responsibility of building a collegiate program from the ground up, a majority of the Oregon Athletics staff did not agree with her vision. Many made it clear that they did not want Mulkey part of Oregon Athletics at all.
Gary Grey, a staff member in the Oregon Athletics department and a good friend of Mulkey’s, was once her biggest critic. Grey challenged the sport’s format, arguing that it would not translate to a collegiate setting.
“Gary was the game-changer. He challenged me to address questions I had not considered enough in specific detail,” Mulkey said. “He also taught me a huge lesson… that your biggest sceptic can be your most useful resource if you are prepared to be open minded and unafraid of their opinions,” she said.
Soon after beginning her job, Mulkey embarked on her first recruiting trip for the University of Oregon.
“All I could think about on that flight was how I was going to take this unique skill set and make it fit into a college setting,” Mulkey said. “I had no paper with with me, so I just got a United Airlines napkin, and by the end of the flight, I had the blueprint for both the format and scoring that is still very similar to what we use today,” Mulkey said.
Acrobatics and Tumbling, and the format she developed, are now trademark elements of the sport. And Mulkey is not stopping there. As NCATA Director of Expansion, she intends to establish Acrobatics and Tumbling as an NCAA sport within the next two years.
Mulkey said she used adversity as motivation to move forward, an attitude that has influenced her coaching style. Mulkey rarely discusses winning—instead, she focuses on the details of each performance and encourages her team to perform to the best of their ability. She believes that her team cannot achieve success without mastering the process.
Kati Horstmann, a junior from Liberty Hill, Texas and athlete on Baylor’s Acrobatics & Tumbling team, experiences Mulkey’s coaching every day. Horstmann credited Mulkey for helping her grow as both an athlete and a person.
“Coach Fee has helped me through some pretty hard times,” Horstmann said. “Not only has she guided me through the rough moments, but she has also taught me the importance of hard work, accountability and self-confidence.”
Mulkey said she aims to communicate to her team that winning isn’t defined by scores or trophies. “Winning is that moment that usually occurs at the end of the cycle of relentless training and hard work,” Mulkey said. “It’s a 30-second feeling when you know you’ve finally turned the corner. It’s a feeling and a mentality that’s hard to describe, but once you’ve experienced it, you chase it for the rest of your life.”