I remember two years ago sitting in the crowd at the brand new Matthew Knight Arena, but my jaw was almost to the floor. I wasn’t watching Johnathan Loyd slicing through defenders or E.J. Singler dropping three’s. Instead, I was watching a group of athletic, strong and ferocious women throwing their bodies everywhere and defying the laws of gravity. This is the UO Acrobatics and Tumbling team, and boy are they good. It is all the talent and skills of gymnastics combined with cheer and at an Oregon Ducks football pace. And guess who was the first school to start such a fast-paced, high intensity sport? Oregon. It just makes sense. I had the opportunity to sit down with Acrobatics and Tumbling Coach Chelsea Shaw at the Casanova Center to talk about the season and just how important this sport is for the development of young women.
The Ducks are currently ranked #1 in the nation, and they have been for a while. Oregon has won every single national championship since the sport’s first national championship tournament in 2011. Currently, there are only 13 total teams across the nation with acrobatics and tumbling teams.
Shaw was on the team in 2009 when it was first sanctioned. “We were just kind of creating the sport and figuring out how it was going to work and how the meet format was going to be. And then going all over the country to try and educate people. So we would show up at competitions — cheerleading or gymnastics meets — and kind of just exhibition.”
After three years, Shaw graduated in 2012 with a degree in Sociology from UO. After a successful first year coaching at Gannon University in Pennsylvania, Shaw returned to her alma mater doing what she loves. She started coaching youth gymnastics at a young age and then went on to a competitive league until she reached college. “I just feel blessed every day, because not very many people can say they love their job.”
There are six different events in any meet: compulsory, acro, pyramid, toss, tumbling, and team event. “It is an evolution of gymnastics so it is all the same discipline, all the same technique, all the same training and progressions… except for it’s all on the floor,” says Shaw. You’ll find no bars, no beams and no leotards. It is just you and the floor. The scoring system is again very similar to gymnastics where judges watch for pointed toes, sticking the landing and the degree of difficulty. The coaches submit to the judges beforehand the stunts the teams will perform, and then judging is based upon whether the teams did in fact do as they said and how they executed.
Shaw says, “The great thing about having it in college is that main stream sports are fan-friendly. People who don’t know anything about the sport can still come and enjoy it and can track it the whole meet.”
Not only is the sport entertaining for the fans, but also these 45 women learn more valuable and developmental skills than just how to flip.
“It is creating more opportunities for women; and that is the whole point of the sport. The sport being created wasn’t to take away from gymnastics. In fact, I was a level-10 gymnast and did that whole route. We get gymnasts, we get cheerleaders, we get acrobats… We get a lot of different athletes that may have never had the opportunity to compete in college that can now have another opportunity. There are very few spots on the roster for those teams and you have to be the top-of-the-top to make one of those teams anyway.”
She continues, “There is a lot of opportunity for athletes that get to benefit from not only the sport but the education and the resources and the networking and stuff that will set them up for success in their lives.”
Being the #1 ranked team means the eyes of the nation are always on you; you have a target on your back that every other team can see; and your goal is not chasing after someone else but yourself. My Ultimate Frisbee coach always says, “It’s hard to climb the mountain when you’re already on top.” Coach Shaw is confident in the program and that the team doesn’t really let a number define them.
“Our team, we don’t really think about the rankings a whole lot. Obviously we train our kids to win and to work hard, but more importantly we want to develop good people here and good kids with character, integrity, hard work, time management and networking and everything that encompasses a good person. The winnings will come after that.”
The Ducks will be seeking another national title this April at the college national championship meet.
Top Photo by: Gary Breedlove