In the weeks leading up to her freshman debut, Rachael Lukacs’ anticipation turned into a mental struggle, or a funk, as she put it.
A small mistake became overwhelmingly drastic in Lukacs’ head and there was a persistent drive for perfection. She would work tirelessly in the practice gym to try to improve any small technicality, and Lukacs meant well by it, too.
Lukacs’ lifelong dream was to become a GymDog, and she had always wanted to show her best ability on vault. She had recorded numerous perfect 10s in her club gymnastics career, and showcased her talents with a 9.925 score at the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2018 — a rare result for junior gymnasts at the event. But competing at Stegeman Coliseum in front of more than 10,000 each weekend was a different test.
“We tell her to believe in herself and especially her coaches,” said Laurie Lukacs, Lukacs’ mom who could tell concerns were present while talking to her daughter. “She had to trust in her training and couldn’t overthink it.”
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Her routine is centered around the Yurchenko double-full, a skill that none of her GymDog teammates use and one that is only showcased by the nation’s premier gymnasts — most notably former Florida gymnast and national champion Alex McMurtry.
In the opening moments of No. 6 Georgia’s 197.000-195-900 victory over Iowa State, Lukacs had a moment of personal redemption.
Lukacs stepped up for her vault and heard a large Georgia crowd roar as she flew through the air. She landed on a small hop (one of the few flaws limiting the freshman from a perfect 10) and opened her mouth in a seemingly-surprised reaction. Instead, it was enjoyment and Lukacs clapped ferociously, raised her hands in the air and embraced an ecstatic Suzanne Yoculan Leebern.
“It feels good to be able to go out there. I was having a little bit of struggle on vault, and I don’t tend to have those,” Lukacs said. “That’s been my event and I love vault. I had a little bump in the road, but hitting it today gave me more confidence to go out and perform like that.”
There was a burden lifted off of Lukacs, and at last any of the worry subsided. She recorded her second 9.9 of the season on vault — the other on Jan. 11 at top-ranked Oklahoma. Lukacs is the first Georgia freshman to record multiple scores of 9.9-or-higher since Lauren Johnson (9.975 and 9.9) did so in 2014 and was named an individual SEC champion on the event.
Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter is more-than-pleased with Lukacs’ showing on vault, but not surprised. Georgia saw potential in Lukacs when they recruited her out of New Jersey and saw a unique type of repetitive success firsthand. Now, Kupets Carter believes it’s in the freshman’s “DNA.”
“She’s definitely capable of 9.9-plus each time she goes out there, and we really call that a difference-maker,” the second-year head coach said. “We told her that. She’s starting to push through. Her routines are so much better in the fact that she enjoys it. She’s so happy and enjoys being able to perform.”
Georgia recorded a 49.300 on vault against Iowa State, tying a season-high. It is the GymDogs’ highest total since scoring a 49.350 last season against Boise State, and brings the team average on the event to a 49.192. Georgia ranks fourth nationally at vault, and it serves as improvement to the ninth-best average of 49.050 in 2018.
At times last season, Georgia’s vault rotation showed to be its weakness but now has proven to be a strength. Lukacs has been vital towards the progressions as her lowest total was a 9.800 on Friday against Alabama.
“It’s huge and what you really need. You need four 9.9-or-higher in order to be in contention at the end of the year,” Kupets Carter said. “To have Sydney (Snead) and Lukacs at the end of that lineup, it’s what we really need. We have potential, and now it’s about honing in the skills.”
Oh yeah, Lukacs’ weekend on floor exercise wasn’t all-too-shabby either. Her routine against Iowa State was full of personality and capped off by waving her arms to pump up the crowd en route to a season-best 9.925. She’s Georgia’s only newcomer to compete on two events, and Lukacs could be in the running for another SEC Freshman of the Week honor.
So, which is the freshman’s favorite?
“Ooh, that’s a hard one,” Lukacs said. “I like both of them, because I’m more powerful and not really the elegant-type gymnast. So, being able to show my power on both floor and vault … well, I guess vault is my favorite event.”
Nevertheless, Lukacs has evolved from struggling to shining as one of Georgia’s most-productive gymnasts, regardless of classification. And while waiting to speak to reporters Monday, Lukacs stood in the back of the room and began to cry.
She heard support from her teammates, and the dream of being a GymDog was fulfilled at that moment.
“You see a lot of freshmen come in with talent, but Rachael is special,” junior Sabrina Vega said. “She’s an incredible gymnast and that power is ridiculous. She works really hard to get that vault to where it is. I saw it the first day. She shows the team how much she loves gymnastics and there’s pure joy.”