Can Courtney Kupets Carter bring the winning formula back to Georgia gymnastics?
The best moment of Courtney Kupets' storied NCAA gymnastics career didn't happen in the gym. It happened on a plane.
It was April 23, 2006, and she'd just completed perhaps the most successful freshman season in history, earning the national all-around, bars and beam titles and helping lead Georgia to the team title as well. On the plane ride back from Corvallis, Oregon, she sat deep in thought.
"It took me the whole year to understand what being on a team like this was all about," she says now, thinking back. "But on the plane ride home, I finally got it. I looked at everything we had done that season together. All the work, all the practices -- even if we hadn't won, in fact, even if we had had a terrible meet -- it was all worth it."
Kupets had been a member of the 2004 Olympic team and won two U.S. national all-around titles. She would go on to win two more NCAA all-around titles. And yet this moment felt even more important than any of that, because she realized that she loved doing her sport more than she ever had before.
This is what Kupets, now 30 and known as Courtney Kupets Carter, wants most for her team as she enters her first competition as Georgia's head coach on Friday, when the Gymdogs open their season against Alabama.
Because the past eight years have been far from enjoyable for Georgia gymnastics. Kupets Carter wrapped up her career in 2009, the same year in which the team won its fifth consecutive national title, and that longtime coach Suzanne Yoculan retired. With a record 10 national titles overall, Georgia gymnastics was the top program in college gymnastics.
But in 2010, just one year later, Georgia failed to even qualify for the NCAA championships, finishing the season ranked 13th in the country. It was shocking for Georgia fans, and it also wasn't a fluke. Since then, the team has finished the season ranked somewhere between fifth and 12th -- and has seen two head coaches leave before their contracts were up. Jay Clark, the assistant coach under Yoculan, resigned after three seasons, and last spring, his successor, Danna Durante, was let go after five seasons and a shaky, last-place performance at the 2017 NCAA championships.
"It's been really, really hard to watch," says Yoculan. "It's been devastating."
And it was enough to make Kupets Carter decide to go for the head coach position. She had stayed involved with the sport, serving as a student coach for the Georgia team in 2010, coaching intermittently at gymnastics clubs and even performing in the Las Vegas acrobatic show Le Reve. She married Chris Carter, a former acrobatic gymnast for the British national team, in 2014, and the couple moved back to Georgia, where Kupets Carter coached full time at the Oconee Gymnastics Club. She also worked as a NCAA gymnastics analyst for the SEC Network.
But she had very little collegiate coaching experience. "It was kind of crazy, because I knew it was a chance that the University would have to take on me, but I was so thankful that they saw the vision that I had to continue this program," she says. "I think my experience as a gymnast is more than I could have even gotten as a coach at a different university, because I was under Suzanne Yoculan during my time as a gymnast and her philosophies and her program is really what I know. I believe there's no better way to understand your athletes than knowing exactly what they are going through."
Kupets Carter also knew that Yoculan had been watching the program that she loved flounder in the rankings, and that she would jump at the chance to get back involved with the team. So she called Yoculan to float an idea: Kupets Carter would apply for the head coach position -- and she wanted Yoculan to then come back as a volunteer coach if she got the job. Yoculan said yes, and she helped Kupets Carter prep for the interview.
"I wasn't ready to retire when I retired," Yoculan says. "I wasn't burned out or finished coaching. So I guess in the back of my mind and in my heart I was always hoping I could come back in a different capacity and role in the right circumstances."
When Kupets Carter was hired as head coach in May, she immediately hopped on the phone with her new team -- school was out for the year -- and via a 15-way conference call, she talked about the ideas she had for the program. "I told them, 'Change is hard, I want you guys to be open to it.' And there was a lot of excitement from them to move forward and to move in a good direction," she recalls.
Then, when the team returned to campus, she put the model she remembered from her college career into place. Overall fitness was a top priority, but rest was equally important. She ditched Sunday practices that had been held in previous years, and she made sure the athletes had two full days off every week. She vowed not to react to bad practices by going longer in the day or adding another practice to the schedule -- but to see them as part of the process.
"If they're strong and healthy, their gymnastics will be there," she notes.
Yoculan had always held Monday team-building meetings before practice. From day one, this year's team did that too. As head coach, Yoculan met with every gymnast on her team individually at least twice a month. Kupets Carter set this up too. "What did you talk to everybody about back then?" she asked Yoculan, at one point, who replied, "I don't know ... what did you and I talk about? It wasn't gymnastics -- it was anything you felt like!"
The philosophy behind all of it is to build a team of athletes and coaches who trust each other. And though they've talked from time to time about the drama and tough parts of recent years, they are firmly focused forward, with a new mindset that mirrors the mental strengths of the Georgia teams of the past.
"We both think that the happier a gymnast is, the better she does, and that it's our responsibility to do what the gymnast needs, not the reverse," says Yoculan. "Courtney handles that role perfectly. I feel like I am walking into a gym that's run exactly like how I would run it if I was head coach."
This year won't be an easy one. The team has had so many injuries in the preseason that Kupets Carter may have to put up five gymnasts on an event instead of the six allowed, simply because she doesn't have enough healthy athletes to fill the lineup. At one point in the fall, all four freshmen had injuries that sidelined them. Because of this, both Kupets Carter and Yoculan have measured goals for this season.
"The team we start out with is going to be different than the team we end the season with," says Kupets Carter. "My goal for this season is to get them to their best potential. So we want to win, but for them, we describe winning as competing at their best individually."
Yoculan is more direct. "We don't have a lineup that can score 10s and 9.9s, so being the best we can be is probably a different number than for other Georgia teams in the past and for other teams in the country. But I do think that Georgia gymnastics in no time is going to be back on the map. I think next year alone we will be contending for a national title again."
While Kupets Carter has found the job more challenging than she had imagined, she's also found it intensely rewarding -- even in just the eight months she's been there. And through this rebuilding year, she has kept in mind what she loved so much about her own freshman season.
"This is a sport where these athletes start at such a young age, and they know that college is actually the end for them, most of the time. It's a serious sport, and sometimes the fun is lost. The best part for me is to see them really enjoy their gymnastics."