Surfer Girl


Michelle Mulak-Cheatham, ’14 | Fitness/Water Reporter, FLORIDA TODAY +
Owner/CEO, Ohana Oceanic Inc.

By Angie Lewis, ’03

“I was born for that,” exclaimed Michelle Mulak-Cheatham, ’14, after spotting a job for a fitness and water reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. “I knew the moment I was in the building for my interview that it felt like home. I wasn’t nervous, I was just ready.”

As the newspaper’s first fitness and water reporter, Mulak-Cheatham is a trailblazer, figuring out things as she goes.

“Every day is a new adventure,” she says. “I’m all over the place — surfing one day, mountain biking the next, and then learning how to ballroom dance on the next day. There’s a lot of variety in my day-to-day life, and it rocks!”

Before landing her dream position with the Space Coast’s daily news source, Mulak-Cheatham kept busy — first, as a gymnastics teacher, then as head of the kids’ fitness program for Health First, then as an adaptive and mainstream physical education and reading enrichment teacher at an elementary school, and, most recently, as the owner and CEO of Ohana, her own surfing, art and leadership program for kids.

“Come to think of it, this is the first time that I’ve worked with grown-ups in about a dozen years!” she says.

And, her newest job is the perfect fit for her active lifestyle. In fact, it was her love of surfing that drew her to Brevard County, where she now lives and regularly hangs 10 with her two sons, ages 13 and 9, and the love of her life, Steve. It was a move she made the day after she graduated from Boone High School in Orlando.

“From a young age, I have loved to move and challenge myself,” she explains. “I never, ever, ever stayed still … Being an athlete has always been a no-brainer. It makes me feel strong and powerful and capable.”

Surfin’ Q&A

Q. Most memorable experience on the job?
A. The first time my picture was on the front page of the Sunday paper and someone recognized me. They told me that they loved my writing and couldn’t wait to read more of it. That was like high-fiving the whole universe.

Q. What did you want to be when you grew up?
A. A teacher and a writer and a gymnast and an artist and mom and a mermaid

Q. How has your UCF degree helped you in your career?
A. Endlessly. The whole experience of interdisciplinary education is very real-world. It gave me a fair amount of knowledge in several areas, which helps you to feel confident in a variety of situations. The career prep was top-notch. Throughout my time at UCF, I really began to master the art of concise and charismatic communication. That’s a skill set that transcends any career path. It gave me a mega advantage. Taking classes in person is so important. It teaches you how to socialize as an adult with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. It also gives you a reason to practice speaking up and presenting publicly.

Q. What has been your favorite surfing spot so far?
A. Southern Nicaragua is pretty fantastic. Costa Rica is so beautiful — it will take your breath away. Then again, I love the waves in front of my house. Wherever there are fun waves, that’s my favorite place at that moment.

Q. How do you channel your artistic inclination?
A. Paint. Draw. Doodle. Write. Dance. Sing. Make jewelry.

Q. Why are you such a music lover?
A. It speaks to me. It wakes me up and quiets me down. It connects me to the moment.

Q. Favorite band/artist?
A. There are too many. Right now, I’m loving Lake Street Dive, the Foo Fighters, anything with a fun ska sound. The answer to that really depends on my mood.

Q. First concert you ever attended?
A. The Gin Blossoms at Albright College in Pennsylvania. I was maybe 11 or 12.

Q. Do you play an instrument?
A. Piano

Q. Besides surfing/working out, what’s your favorite thing to do while you travel?
A. Walk around and explore. Hike. Find a beautiful place to lie down and read, or just absorb the new space. Find the best place for a craft beer and a local meal.

Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Deciding to take a step back from Ohana and move in a new direction

Q. What advice would you give to those who hate exercise but want to get fit?
A. Try new things. You will find something eventually that doesn’t feel like exercise. For me, that thing is dancing or surfing. Once you find the thing you enjoy, do it as often as you can. If you really hate exercise and won’t commit to doing it, you will never be fit. End of story. You can diet your way to thin, but you can’t diet your way to strong.

Q. Any other fitness/health advice you can share?
A. Don’t take your ability to move for granted. You never know when that ability might be taken away from you.

More Info

See a video of Michelle in action at

Surf’s Up!

Alumnus’ passion to hang 10 inspires him to keep an active lifestyle and pursue environmental change

Mitch Varnes, ’85 | President, Smooth Running

By Daniela Marin

The UCF Surf Club is one of the largest non-Greek organizations on campus today, but, nearly 30 years ago, it was the enthusiasm of eight young surfers who laid the foundation for what would become a hub for wave fanatics.

Mitch Varnes, ’85, was one of those students, and went on to co-found the club.

“I think co-founding the UCF Surf Team was probably my first entrepreneurial effort,” he says. “More than anything, it taught me to go out and make things happen.”

Since then, Varnes has additionally founded the Collegiate Surfing Association, the Sebastian Inlet Pro and the Ron Jon Beach ’N Boards Fest.

In efforts to engage his community in an active lifestyle, spur local economic growth and practice sustainability, Varnes currently holds a position as president of Smooth Running.

“I think people should only work at jobs that are fun and that they enjoy,” he says. “I know that sounds altruistic, but it can be done.”

Smooth Running is the producer of endurance events across East Central Florida. Some of these multi-sport events include the Publix Melbourne Music Marathon Weekend, the Ron Jon Cocoa Beach Triathlon and the Rocketman Florida Triathlon, the first privately coordinated sporting event to take place at the Kennedy Space Center.

“Creating events is something I really love to do, and I have formed this career so that I have the flexibility to travel when I want and to spend a lot of time with my children and my wife,” Varnes says.

In 2010, Varnes received the Champion Award from the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce for the economic impact of the Melbourne Music Marathon Weekend.

He additionally received the Entrepreneur of the Year award from Space Coast Magazine, proving his entrepreneurial initiatives while at UCF the first of many.

“I was truly honored to receive that award,” Varnes says. “There are lots of business owners and entrepreneurs here on the space coast so it was a humbling moment for a guy who puts on races, triathlons and surfing events.”

Varnes has been able to incorporate both his passion for surfing and mission for sustainability in the planning and execution of events, such as the Melbourne and Beaches Music Marathon Weekend, which achieved its goal of zero waste in 2012.

“I surround myself with lots of vibrant people in their 20s and 30s, and they have molded our events into among the most sustainable anywhere in the country,” he says.

Varnes and his team recycle everything from water bottles to paper plates and cups, and compost food scraps like orange rinds, banana peels, pizza crust and all else. In 2013, he received the Sustainability Award from Keep Brevard Beautiful.

“I used to think it would be too much work and effort to make sustainability a focus, but it is actually an easy thing once you make it part of your model,” he says. “Now it’s just something we do second nature.”

Contributing to the implementation of sustainable practices is a team of UCF students, which Varnes employs for almost all events. He additionally offers internships to UCF students, and continually speaks at the Devos School of Sports Management.

“It is really inspirational for me to see these students so excited and dedicated to our cause,” he says. “I am very proud of our school and its students.”

Such pride is exemplified by Varnes’ previous involvement in the Space Coast Alumni Board of Directors, on which he served as president for three years, and the Golden Knight’s Board of Directors, the fundraising arm of UCF Athletics.

On Aug. 30, Varnes followed the UCF football team to Dublin, Ireland for its Croke Park Classic game against Penn State. Varnes says that although he is not of Irish heritage, he and his family highly admire the country, and he bought the tickets as soon as they became available.

“We lost that game in the final seconds, but college football does not get any better than that game,” he says. “I think my favorite memory from that game was talking to the Irish people who were just as enthralled with American football and knew all about it. I also enjoyed meeting a couple from Germany who had become UCF fans and traveled to the game with no other connection to UCF.”

Ridin’ the Wave Q&A

Q. Describe a typical day at work.
A. There are few typical days for me, but they usually begin with getting up before daylight and always taking my kids to school. I then usually go back home, read, fish, surf, run or bike for a couple of hours and then head into the office by 10:30 a.m. I work six or eight hours a day, but, in the weeks running up to an event, things intensify quite a bit. It’s not unusual for us to work 20 hours straight during an event.

Q. What’s your favorite thing about your job?
A.The best part of my job is putting on events that make people and their families happy. People circle the dates of our races and train for them for months. It’s also very satisfying to see the local economic impact of what we do. Our events fill hotel rooms and restaurants all over the Space Coast.

Q. Upon co-founding the UCF Surf Team, did you find that it was a struggle to find fellow surfers or was there already the beginning of a community?
A. There was a core group of six or eight of us who actually showed up at every surf contest. We basically would go surf all day at Playalinda [Beach] and come home with a trophy! It’s very cool to see the UCF Surf Team nowadays, and I support them when I can.

Q. How often do you surf? How do you incorporate that into your professional life?
A. I surf as I have time or when there are waves. It sounds kind of crazy, but I actually surf more outside of Florida than at home. With work and our kids, it’s actually easier to get away and surf than it is to surf at home.

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A. I think I want to be a travel photographer and writer when I grow up.

Q. What advice would you give to a large group of people?
A. Follow your passion and do what makes you happy.

Q. How do you hope your career will transition/grow over the next five years?
A. I plan to still have a few sizable events and to continually fine tune and evolve them. I’m actually pretty comfortable and happy where I am, and just looking to keep things rolling.

Q. How did your education in journalism help get you to where you are today?
A. I’ve written and published hundreds of article and photos. Journalism teaches one discipline and the requirement to meet deadlines.

Q. What’s your favorite memory from your time at UCF?
A. My favorite memories of UCF were being part of what was then a pretty tight-knit school. I am not exaggerating to say that I may have known more students that I didn’t know at the school. Now, it has a massive student population, which is OK too.

More Info

Feeling inspired to volunteer your time for a worthy cause? Check out all of the alumni community service events happening during the eighth annual Knights Give Back on Saturday, Oct. 11.