In between sessions of Friday’s NCAA regional, Georgia’s Courtney Kupets Carter crossed paths with the Maryland gymnastics team as it prepared to take the Stegeman Coliseum floor. The coaches exchanged pleasantries, and a short, direct message was shared.
In gymnastics, that’s the biggest wish amongst teams engaging in competition. Ten teams convened in Athens to compete for a trip to the national championships, but winning-and-losing wasn’t the utmost priority.
“You want to make sure everyone stays safe because this is a dangerous sport,” Kupets Carter said. “That’s our biggest ask of everyone across the board.”
That same day, news of Auburn senior gymnast Sam Cerio suffering a double knee dislocation in the Baton Rouge regional final shook the gymnastics world to its core. Georgia’s locker room was one of the spots where it hit hard and emotion and disbelief was palpable.
Cerio, a Huntersville, North Carolina native, competed in her final meet for Auburn after suffering the injury during a tumbling pass. Auburn head coach Jeff Graba tweeted a statement Monday stating the diagnosis of dislocation and torn ligaments. Cerio underwent a two-and-a-half hour surgery Tuesday with success, according to an update from her head coach.
Georgia was one team to take initiative to pay its respects to Cerio and the Auburn gymnastics program. Kupets Carter, who suffered multiple injuries in her athletic career, received cards and well wishes of her own. As a coach, she and her team are paying it forward by signing a “get well soon” card to Auburn.
“It is absolutely heartbreaking that something like that happened to an athlete,” Kupets Carter said. “We want to make sure we treat that school and athlete as if they were our own.”
Georgia sophomores Marissa Oakley and Emily Schild have a direct tie to Cerio as they all are natives of the same hometown. Cerio trained at the same gym as the GymDogs duo, Everest Gymnastics, but the three seldom crossed paths due to an age difference. None of the other GymDogs had a relationship with Cerio, but saw her compete in Auburn’s win over Georgia on Jan. 25. Cerio competed on floor and uneven bars, scoring a 9.825 on each event.
Schild, however, can relate to Cerio’s circumstances. Schild suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the Elevate the Stage meet in March, and posted about a successful surgery to Instagram on March 20. Schild recently shed a full-legged knee brace and crutches as of Tuesday’s media availability.
These instances are unpredictable and can be career-shattering. That’s why Kupets Carter uses the term “dangerous,” because such difficult skills cause significant injuries as seen across the gymnastics landscape on a frequent basis.
Georgia saw then-senior Gigi Marino suffer a season-ending Achilles tear in the opening meet last season, freshman Sterlyn Austin recently returned from a fractured shin and retirements from current staffers Gracie Cherrey and Jordyn Pedersen.
“We, as gymnasts, make gymnastics look very easy,” freshman Rachael Lukacs said. “There’s always going to be some incidents where there are dangers or cautions with certain skills. You can’t control it sometimes, but it was heartbreaking to see that happen. I’m sending (Cerio) my prayers and wishing a speedy recovery.”
As a result, Georgia gymnasts and coaches alike have chosen not to watch footage of the Cerio injury. Georgia has many skills that include blind landings, including an Arabian double front from junior Rachel Dickson.
“I refuse to watch it, because I do frontward skills. I can’t,” she said. “I know exactly what happened and heard all about it. That’s an extreme injury and that’s always heartbreaking. My heart goes out to her, and we are all sending our prayers.”
It’s a give-or-take situation in a sense, and most collegiate gymnasts opt for the difficulty and higher starting value on routines — despite the immense risk that comes with it. There is plenty of caution taken by Georgia’s coaching and training staff to ensure risk for potential injuries is at its lowest. For example, there are limits on “numbers” (known as amount of repetitions during practice in layman’s terms) for a gymnast on a daily and weekly basis.
Therefore, there’s a trust factor when gymnasts engage in competition. Despite seeing such a catastrophic injury take place, a passion for the sport and belief in preparation allows for a fearless approach.
“It’s something you can’t think about when you’re going up,” Oakley said. “It makes things worse, because it gets to a point where you have to trust the training. I know there are flukes and it stinks, but it’s even more likely if you think about it.”
Georgia’s season resumes at NCAA national championships from April 19-20, but an expression of gratitude toward Auburn and Cerio was of importance as preparation began. In a sport that preaches safety, an injury such as Cerio’s is one that sends shockwaves across every practice gym.
“This is truly devastating. You know that every single athlete is working super hard, and Sam was always so nice,” Oakley said. “I’ve been thinking of her, praying for her and know she’s going to make a strong recovery.”