Acrobatics & TumblingSports

Five years and thousands of miles later, Mayard, Mulkey find storybook ending

Oregon’s rise to the top of the acrobatics and tumbling world didn’t come without plenty of sacrifice.

For Tori Mayard and the eight other seniors on Felecia Mulkey’s 2011 national championship team, the journey began more than five years ago on the opposite side of the country.

When Mayard graduated high school in Lake Charles, La., she began competing at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, a small college town in northern Louisiana. But after just one quarter, Mayard quickly realized Louisiana Tech couldn’t offer what she was looking for from a competitive standpoint, and she started making the 45-minute trip east to Monroe, where she continued training with another coach at a local gym.

Her instructor happened to be close friends with the Kennesaw State head coach at the time, Mulkey, who was one of the premier influences in the sport as it truly got its feet off the ground. After just a five-minute conversation with Mulkey, Mayard was ready to make the move to Kennesaw, Ga., where she eventually lived in a house that Mulkey rented, while she stayed in her apartment in Atlanta.

“She was a great athlete with a lot of potential,” Mulkey remembers. “But not the exact athlete you saw competing at Oregon. She grew a lot and got a lot more confident, but just her potential and then her mindset is what sold us on her.”

Mayard competed for the next two years at Kennesaw State, helping the team to fourth-and second-place finishes at nationals, while earning All-American honors her sophomore season.

But as Mulkey’s reputation continued to build, she received an offer from the University of Oregon to head the Ducks’ newly created program and bring a sport that was essentially unheard of on the West Coast to Eugene. Of course, Mayard was among the first people she told.

“She came downstairs and told me about the secret, about an offer she had,” Mayard said. “I did not ask her where it was, I did not ask her anything else, I was just like, ‘I’m coming; I’m not competing for anyone else but you.’”

Mulkey eventually informed the rest of her team about the offer and invited those able and interested to come out, as the future of the Kennesaw State program was far from concrete at the time.

Once all was said and done, Mayard and six other teammates — Marly Campos, Ashley Dawson, Britta LaBlanc, Kimberly Lopez, Jacquie Svadeba and Mercedez Toles — committed to Mulkey and made the trip across the country in pursuit of their dream.

“Of course Tori was one of the ones I was hoping would be interested, and she was,” Mulkey said. “One of the reasons I brought her — obviously she’s talented, but it’s more than the talent — I wanted her to be here to start the program with her mentality and her thought process.”

The first year was tough, sure. Nobody in Eugene had any idea what a competitive cheer team would look like, and trying to describe it to them in words was nearly impossible.

But before long, the ball got rolling, and Oregon had its first team stunts and gymnastics squad on display the next winter. The Ducks took third at nationals with a newfound respect among the same people that questioned what the sport would look like in the first place, and Mayard garnered team MVP honors.

“That’s probably the coolest part of the whole thing,” Mayard said, “just the respect factor.”

As Oregon captured its first national championship trophy this April at Matthew Knight Arena, there was no question the team had gained the respect it deserved. And for the senior class who started their journey all the way back in Georgia, and for Mayard, even farther, seeing their work finally come full circle was the perfect storybook ending.

“It couldn’t have been a more deserving group of seniors,” Mulkey said. “They made a lot of sacrifices financially and mentally coming all the way across the country and leaving their families.

“It couldn’t have been a more deserving group of kids.”

Now that Mayard’s competitive career at the collegiate level has expired, she plans on returning home and pursuing a coaching career within the sport. As a certified strength and conditioning specialist — professionals who design and implement strength training and conditioning programs for athletes in a team setting — Mayard hopes to find her way onto a coaching staff and make her way up the ranks to one day be standing opposite Mulkey, as friends and colleagues.

“She’s taught me everything I know, especially with coaching,” Mayard said of Mulkey. “That’s one of the transitions when I moved here, how I persuaded my dad to let me move here, is that Coach Fe is going to teach me everything I need to know to have a career in this.”

“I have no doubt in my mind that I’ll be coaching against her one day,” added Mulkey.

The competitive drive that sparked multiple moves into the unknown still fuels Mayard, who has aspirations of being better than Mulkey someday.

“I’m very competitive just like Coach Fe is,” she said. “So we’ll see who wins that battle.”

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