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How GymDogs’ ‘unstoppable’ elation built up confidence ahead of regional final

GymDogs claim top spot at NCAA Athens Regional

GymDogs Rachael Lukacs and Sabrina Vega spoke with media following the squad's first-place finish at the NCAA Athens Regional. The team will compete on Saturday in the regional final with Kentucky.
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GymDogs Rachael Lukacs and Sabrina Vega spoke with media following the squad's first-place finish at the NCAA Athens Regional. The team will compete on Saturday in the regional final with Kentucky.

Rachael Lukacs is quickly becoming iconic for her post-routine reactions. They’re ferocious, exuberant with nothing false about them. It’s usually a few sharp claps and a wide-grinned smile, but it reached a new level Friday afternoon.

Lukacs stuck her double pike as one of her final sequences on floor routine. She began with her usual celebration, then a jolt of adrenaline kicked in. She knew it was good, so the floor mat essentially became a trampoline. Lukacs began to hop up-and-down with joy, riled up her teammates who were camped together off to the side and allowed chants of “U-G-A” to percolate across Stegeman Coliseum in what was supposed to be a neutral-site crowd.

“I’m still shaking,” Lukacs said after notching a 9.925, tying a season-high on floor for the Georgia freshman.

That continued on into a post-meet media session as Lukacs and junior Sabrina Vega were shaking with joy. They were loose, fun-natured and showed a true side of their personalities more than they had at any point this season. Due to the format of NCAA regionals, press conferences took place in the room usually reserved for men’s and women’s basketball (gymnastics interviews are usually held in a locker room), and the pair of GymDogs were jumping at the opportunity to speak at a podium.

Lukacs said she was “all professional now,” acting as an interviewer by holding a wired microphone and greeting reporters with grins and laughs. Georgia was flying high and full of swagger after it notched a 197.300 to win its opening session at NCAA regionals. Kentucky was the second team out of the session to reach Saturday’s regional final, with No. 1 Oklahoma and California advancing out of the evening session.

“I definitely came into more of a confidence in myself and my team,” Lukacs said. “It’s taken me awhile to build that. But I know that I can go out there, have fun, get that positivity and enjoy myself a lot more.”

Those emotions come from Georgia finishing Friday’s meet on floor — the event that brings the most energy, especially on its home arena. But it actually started well before the meet in the GymDogs’ team meeting at 9:30 a.m. Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter has said these moments of evaluation have been fruitful throughout the season, but especially so ahead of postseason competition.

That was because of the use of “trash talk,” where each of the gymnasts sat in a circle and squashed negative perception.

“They had to throw it away and remember all of the positive qualities in themselves,” Kupets Carter said. “They are great gymnasts and make up a very great team.”

From the moment that the four teams simultaneously began competition, that paid off. Freshman Mikayla Magee kicked off the afternoon for Georgia and started with a 9.85 — her second-highest score of the season, behind a 9.875 against Utah. As every follower of gymnastics knows, each competitor will salute and smile regardless of the routine’s success. But Magee was riled up, and it bled through as Abbey Ward and Vega followed with a 9.85 and 9.9, respectively.

There’s a certain list of requirements that a GymDog must satisfy in order to be pleased with a performance. An obvious marker is the scorer as Georgia intends not to count a score below a 9.8, but Lukacs has a few more specifics. That changes by each exercise: floor is about showing personality, vault is about getting “the block” in order to get enough rotation on a double-twisting Yurchenko and bars is about staying in the moment.

“That’s exciting and the underlying goal of every meet — enjoy yourself and have fun,” Kupets Carter said. “That’s easier when you’re doing well. They do a fantastic job of continuing to reset their thinking, and that builds up energy for the next person.”

If those take place, then it calls for true celebration. Georgia aligns its lineups strategically in order for that momentum to build, and Vega said that’s based on three principles: “Be present. Be invested. Stay in the moment.”

“There’s only greatness coming,” Vega said. “That’s fire. We saw it on vault, and her confidence pushed us to the next event.”

Georgia felt that thrill after Vega notched a 9.975 on floor routine and the GymDogs heard their winning score blasted across the PA system. But just over 24 hours later, it resumes and Georgia must compete in its second meet in two days.

That’s a demand that Georgia is prepared for as it does intrasquad practices before each meet to become acclimated to physical endurance. The real test, however, comes mentally. Last Friday, the GymDogs were dead tired after a long week at practice and finished an intrasquad on beam (they’ll do the same Saturday). Kupets Carter’s question was direct: “What are you going to do about it?”

Georgia answered that call and recorded a 49.5, which would’ve set a season-high if it were an actual meet.

“They’re probably going to do better because of it,” Kupets Carter said. “When your body can’t physically do it, that’s when your mind kicks in. These girls are very mentally strong. We have to pull that out of them and keep them in that direction.”

Once all of those qualities click, Georgia gets what it experienced after Friday’s session. There are plenty of smiles, kind hearted moments and ferocious celebrations to go around. With a challenge ahead in order to qualify for nationals, there’s little doubt of the result.

Georgia knows its true identity at the perfect time.

“Us, as a team, we’re unstoppable right now,” Lukacs said. “It only gets better from here. … I’m ready to go out there right now. Well, maybe not right this minute.”

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