By Janell Cook, executive director of the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA), and Mary Ann Powers, head coach of acrobatics & tumbling at Quinnipiac University
Acrobatics & tumbling is the first sport in a century that was created for women by women. The interests and abilities of young women were primary to cementing a competitive and fan-friendly format for this sport. And fan-friendly it is, as can be witnessed by the game-day attendance at the 17 current universities supporting the sport.
As one ticket-office person described, “I am not surprised by the enthusiasm of the little girls and family members who come to watch these women in action. However, what is extraordinary is the ‘ordinary’ sports fan who arrives curious, but leaves inspired by the scope of the landscape these pioneers have built”.
The sport is fun to watch. As one "traditional" college athlete stated: “These women do skills that no one else on our campus can begin to imagine”.
The pioneers of acrobatics & tumbling weren't afraid to dream big. When the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA) was formed, the mission was simple -- provide opportunities for more young women to compete at the collegiate level. Despite over five million girls competing in gymnastics (and another three million who utilize gymnastics skill sets in the activity of cheerleading), the opportunities for varsity collegiate competition are limited to approximately 1,600 positions available on women’s collegiate (artistic) gymnastics rosters. Simply put, a new and safe haven supported by athletic training, academic assistance, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, scholarships, and proper budgets would be nailed into once-barren walls.
Discussion began. How could the skill sets of acrobatics and tumbling translate to a competitive sport in the collegiate athletic environment? Six of the original NCATA coaches examined existing NCAA competition formats in sports like gymnastics, track and field, and basketball as they collaborated to create an entirely new format in which teams would compete head to head. They researched and worked with administrators to ensure the sport met the provisions laid out in Title IX to be considered a varsity sport on college campuses. They reviewed NCAA policies to form comparable rules for competition season, training schedule, recruiting and eligibility.
Thus a new sport was created and it was time to put the roof on the structure. Acrobatics & tumbling and its governing body, the NCATA, were officially founded in 2010. The sport became sanctioned and named a discipline of USA Gymnastics within three years of its formation. In just seven years, Acrobatics & Tumbling has provided over 500 young women the life changing experience of competing as a varsity student-athlete.
“By my senior year of college, after a lifetime of arguing with individuals who refused to admit I was an athlete, my university stood behind me and said, ‘Yes you are’. Now, I will be the first to agree with you if you are saying that standing on the sidelines in a skirt, with pom-poms, cheering on another team is not a sport, but for the majority of my teammates over the years, this was just something we had to do in order to do what we really wanted; to compete. When Quinnipiac University helped create the female collegiate sport ‘Acrobatics & Tumbling’, I could not have been happier. Don’t get me wrong, I loved supporting my fellow athletes, but preferred to do it as a fan in the stands. We were given a strength-and-conditioning coach who went above and beyond to learn and understand our sport and where each team member would need to improve. Our athletic trainers were on hand at every practice, attending to any injuries and making sure we were only pushing our bodies to the extent that they could handle at that time. The change had begun, and I could not have been more proud to be a part of it.”
-- Alicia Chouinard, Quinnipiac University acrobatics & tumbling alumni and Senior Producer/Editor at CSN New England
There's no denying the impact of the student-athlete experience in the lives of young women. In a 2014 survey of 400 female executives, more than 50 percent played collegiate athletics and an astounding 97 percent competed in sport at some point in their lives. The experience is transformative, providing the structure and opportunities for young women to develop the confidence, skills and proficiency to be highly successful in their careers after their collegiate days are over.
What remains remarkable is that the tenacity displayed by administration, coaches and athletes has grown this sport without yet attaining NCAA emerging-sport status. Seventeen colleges and universities currently sponsor acrobatics & tumbling as a varsity sport on their campus. This year, the ECAC announced the first-ever Acrobatics and Tumbling League as a conference sport. And this summer, the NCATA will submit a proposal to the NCAA for emerging-sport status, its goal from the very beginning.
Women are still leading the way with acrobatics & tumbling. At all seventeen NCATA member schools, a woman is the head coach. Five of the six original coaches remain, sharing the history with the younger ranks. Many are former student-athletes, applying their personal experience to the mentorship and instruction of their own team. While much has been accomplished, this inspired group of women is just getting started providing a place to call home.