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Behind the suspenders: GymDogs’ assistant Josh Overton continuing dream in college ranks

GymDogs’ Courtney Kupets Carter: ‘They’re absolutely ready’ for nationals

GymDogs head coach Courtney Kupets Carter said her gymnasts are ready for the national championships this week in Fort Worth, Texas, but the team must focus on the details in their routines.
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GymDogs head coach Courtney Kupets Carter said her gymnasts are ready for the national championships this week in Fort Worth, Texas, but the team must focus on the details in their routines.

Josh Overton stepped into the realm of collegiate gymnastics two years ago and noticed he had to dress nicer.

It was something he didn’t know much about. His only experiences with meet attire included a quarter-zip jacket and shorts as a club-level coach of 19 years.

Overton was the fun guy. He was about finding a balance with lightheartedness in gymnastics, and needed to continue it through his attire. It was the summer of 2017 when he was named one of Georgia gymnastics’ assistant coaches and Overton had to live up to his reputation.

He rummaged for options and found the perfect match in a pair of suspenders, but one challenge continued to deter the search: finding a shade resembling Georgia red.

Overton is specific about many things in life, so he was determined to find the unique color. He shipped a pair back three or four times before finding a beloved pair to wear on the gym floor. Now he has three different patterns — red, solid black and black with white polka dots — that have become his signature look.

“It immediately became a part of Josh,” freshman Rachael Lukacs said. “If there’s a meet where he’s not in suspenders, then it isn’t really Josh there.”

Overton has rocked the suspenders during each meet this season. They’re what he’s known by, but there’s a lot more to Overton’s career, approach and care for those around him behind the pair of suspenders.

As Georgia heads to national championships (April 18-20), Overton will finish his second season on the GymDogs staff and close another chapter in what has been a tenure with plenty of long-burning passion.

Once starting out on a whim as a small-town kid, Overton’s path ends up with the storied program that has seen many days of glory inside Stegeman Coliseum. His career path quickly became like a bucket list, and an opportunity at Georgia was the last one to check off.

“It was the one thing left that I hadn’t done was coach college gymnastics,” Overton said. “I thought ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

Rise through elite gymnastics

Overton grew up in the small southwest Alabama town of Jackson that state route 177 builds a horseshoe shape through. There isn’t too much happening on Jackson’s main drag other than Fish House and Minnie Mae’s Burgers and Shakes. A population of 4,970 means knowing the business of nearly everybody you encounter on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s that kind of place where you’re two hours from a mall or anything,” Overton said, referencing Mobile, perched 67 miles directly to the south with a ride down U.S. 43.

It’s also the place where a 10th-grade version of Overton found his passion. It’s challenging for people to discover their career aspirations at a young age, much less have a full-time job around their 16th birthday, but that’s the luck that Overton rolled into. He began his lifelong craft as a coach at then-Clarke County Gymnastics.

The company was owned by his aunt Donna Blackwell, a former gymnast at Auburn who gave an option to young children in the community to explore the sport and potentially begin paths toward a life around gymnastics. Blackwell and her husband left the venture shortly thereafter, but Overton stayed under the guidance of new ownership and took on the role of gymnastics coach while attending high school.

As Overton’s path moved away from Alabama, his passion for gymnastics persisted. He enrolled at Kennesaw State as a communications major (later pursuing a master’s degree in professional counseling), beginning a 10-year run in the Peach State.

A majority of his time was spent as a college student, but jobs as a gymnastics coach and an information technology director for a faith-based missions organization were intertwined into Overton’s schedule.

“It was a great job — classes during the day and coach at night,” Overton said. “In terms of a career, I realized I’m a perfectionist, and this is the best job for a perfectionist to have. You look at something 500 times and pick out a small difference each time.”

In those years, Overton knew he would sustain a career as a gymnastics coach — beginning on the Junior Olympic circuit. He combines a craze for technical perfection with the counseling qualities gleaned in academic pursuits. That led him to the Gwinnett Gymnastics Center in 2006, where he built meaningful connections with Georgia’s program. He coached former GymDog and individual SEC champion Lauren Johnson and coached with program icon Katie Heenan-Dodson.

Overton brought a new dynamic to elite gymnastics, something especially evident to Heenan-Dodson who grew up around a stricter, intense style of teaching. Overton placed an emphasis on loosening up the approach to success in numerous ways: adapting warm-ups to have a game-like feel, designing a team slogan with t-shirts to complement it and hosting numerous team meetings that focused on life qualities.

After many fruitful years in Georgia, Overton’s big break — on the elite level, at least — came in Des Moines, Iowa, with Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance. He would finish his ascent through the Junior Olympic ranks teaching the same qualities that displayed themselves in his younger years. In a venture on the biggest stage, Overton is noticing similar output.

“It’s the presence about him and he’s so calming,” said sophomore Marissa Oakley, Georgia’s anchor on bars. “He’s the one who can say the right things to give you the confidence you need. He never gives up on us.”

Heenan-Dodson connection

A spring morning had passed begun in Des Moines, and Overton was sound asleep. He turned his head toward the other side of the pillow and noticed there were a couple of missed phone calls from some of the former GymDogs he previously crossed paths with.

Overton was in an almost-ideal situation as he was coaching at one of the most-prestigious gymnastics centers across the world. Newly-hired head coach Courtney Kupets Carter was looking for assistants, however, and Heenan-Dodson was the one to pose another challenge to Overton: “You should apply for this. You’re a good fit.”

Overton began to ponder, but Heenan-Dodson already had some behind-the-scenes wheels in motion. She doesn’t speak with Kupets Carter often, but the two reciprocate respect as teammates during the GymDogs’ national championship run. Heenan-Dodson had desires to enter collegiate coaching herself, but that all went to the wayside after four children and “Mom mode” was fully activated.

Overton came to the forefront of her mind, and she was quick to make the recommendation over text message.

“Probably not going to work,” Heenan-Dodson’s text read. “But in case you are looking, I would recommend Josh.”

Kupets Carter was on the line and hooked to the idea.

She wanted to know about Overton’s qualities, and many of them translated to what Kupets Carter wanted to rebuild with the Georgia gymnastics program. Heenan-Dodson gave glowing reviews after their work together in different stints, and one of the program’s biggest resources in this instance was an alumna.

“It was really kind of strange how it worked out. It wasn’t any of my business or my place to send that text,” Heenan-Dodson said. “Georgia holds a special place in my heart, and I want it to get back to what it was.”

Ironically enough, Overton received a call to finalize his move in Fort Worth, Texas — the same arena where the GymDogs will compete for their 11th national title in program history. He finished coaching his group of Junior Olympic level 10 gymnasts and then flew to Athens to meet with Kupets Carter, administration and check off his final career box.

If Overton and Heenan-Dodson didn’t convene in Gwinnett County, however, he still may be in a waiting stage.

“He learned from her about what Georgia was and the culture that went into it,” Kupets Carter said. “That was the big link that I felt was really important in hiring him.”

GymDogs’ confidence booster

Two weeks had passed since Overton was named a coach at Georgia, and a group of gymnasts surrounded him beside the uneven bars. These weren’t the gymnasts he had coached since they were 4-year-olds and their bar routines weren’t crafted by his own skill.

“They had all been coached by a different club coach: different technique, different strategy and different everything,” Overton said. “I had to get each girl to their best. I had to come to terms that I couldn’t fix anything.”

He reached out to some other coaches, mainly mentors who remained on the elite circuit, and received messages of affirmation: “Do what you do best. That’s maximizing each girl’s potential. Do that.”

That encouragement allowed Overton to ease into his role and become one of the most popular faces around the practice gym. He ensures each gymnasts’ routine is to its best, but also interjects some fun and ease into the situation. That may be done by telling Oakley that her bar routine might be “boring” if it’s the same every year, so it’s tested each offseason. It may also be a jolt of positive energy with Lukacs as they have a dance emulating the one-legged air dancers that stand outside of car dealerships.

Whichever method it may be, the GymDogs rely on Overton for his never-ending confidence and desire to see success in each gymnast. That can be seen by Georgia’s team scores on bar routine, one that Overton described as a “heartbeat” due to its up-and-down pattern. Georgia ranks 11th nationally on uneven bars, but has posted scores of 49.475 in SEC championships and 49.575 in the regional final.

“I love Josh, because it’s not only bars but every event,” Lukacs said. “He helps me calm down or has little cues to help me relax. He helps me have fun, and that’s what I need to do now — instead of being all tense.”

As Overton has found his stride in the collegiate ranks, he’s one of the major architects towards Georgia’s success in the early days of Kupets Carter’s tenure. There is a 21-year gymnastics career behind his flashy pair of suspenders. But the next time he’s out on the floor, he now knows how to dress and be remembered by it.

“That’s just who he is,” Oakley said. “I love it.”

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