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‘She has been a rock for us’: UGA’s Rachael Lukacs finding groove on bars ahead of nationals

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.

As Rachael Lukacs landed a dismount on each apparatus under the bright lights of the Fort Worth Convention Center, she was emotionless. Her obligatory salute was half-hearted, head was hung and her mouth was sealed shut.

Lukacs was evidently frustrated. She was faced with the challenge of performing successfully at a podium meet (Georgia’s fifth this year), and is displeased by anything short of flawless execution. There was a unique focus, but it wasn’t the easy-going, confident mentality that the GymDogs have carried through their postseason run.

“That’s her getting so angry at herself,” Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter told The Telegraph in a post-practice interview Thursday. “It’s really hard to get through to her to change the mentality when she’s mad at herself. I left her alone in it, but she will come ready to go.”

Georgia was in its final 20-minute practice rotation and Lukacs was once again irked, this time with her double-twisting Yurchenko which has been the highlight of her freshman season. At that moment, assistant coach Jason Vonk made her stand still for a pep talk: “You’ve done it how many times this year? How many times in your whole life?”

That made Lukacs pause and let out the smallest of grins. Those bouts of confidence and discouragement have been at the center of the young gymnast’s career. Nevertheless, Lukacs has been forced to trust in her skills on numerous occasions and the output has been strong.

As Georgia begins competition at NCAA national championships (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU/2), its leading freshman will try to overcome what was one of her biggest areas of concern on bar routine.

“It’s mental and physical,” Lukacs said. “Sometimes the bars are a bit bouncer on podium, and sometimes your timing can be a little bit off. You have to slow things down, because you can’t do too much.”

Shortly before the GymDogs left their practice gym in Athens, however, Lukacs found a surge of confidence. Lukacs never thought she would compete on uneven bars at Georgia, but had only done it three times collegiately. Her time came when sophomore and close friend Emily Schild suffered a season-ending knee injury.

In that moment, Lukacs panicked. She was starring for the GymDogs on two events, including vault with consistent scores at-or-above 9.9 with a difficult routine. But this was new territory, at least on such a team-driven stage. Her biggest worry came on the pak salto, because it’s a skill that Lukacs believes must be exact in order for the entire routine to be executed.

“My heart broke knowing (Schild) got hurt like that,” Lukacs said. “It killed me. I was like ‘oh my, I need to get my stuff together.’ I have learned to be calm and trust that I’ve done it. That makes me stay with it, not overthink it and do what I’m capable of.”

Lukacs, like many of her teammates, leaned on assistant coach Josh Overton for a jolt of confidence. Overton is known for his exuberance while having a desire for technical perfection, so he went about it in a couple of different ways with Lukacs.

Technically, each member of the bar lineup has one word to remember for each skill to simplify it and make the gymnast think one-by-one. Lukacs and Overton also added a fun element with a post-routine dance that mimicked that of an air dancer in front of car dealerships.

The trust was there from her coaches and Lukacs had no other option but to instill that confidence in herself. In five meets since holding a full-time lineup spot, each of her scores have fallen between a 9.775 and a 9.85. Those aren’t to the level of her vault outputs, but they’re fruitful and consistent.

“She has been a rock for us,” senior Sydney Snead said. “That shows how hard-working she is, but also says a lot about her character. She did this exactly when we needed her to, and you can see the growth.”

In the days leading up to Georgia’s departure for Fort Worth, Lukacs had the best routine out of anyone in the bar lineup. That’s right, the gymnast who entered the lineup at the latest point.

“It has been hitting handstands,” Lukacs said. “I know my weakness is holding them, and I actually did to channel my inner Marissa (Oakley, who had a perfect 10 at regionals). I had to stay in the moment, and once you hit that then everything else slows down. It’s just you on the bar and nothing else matters.”

Lukacs received a 9.875 from the panel of judges consisting of staffers, current gymnasts and alumni. That was a moment that brought joy to Kupets Carter’s face, because she saw Lukacs’ work ethic result in success.

Once competition starts Friday evening, Lukacs will be depended on to boldly open the meet and provide Georgia with a confident start. If the somber mood turns into a ferocious yell and endless clapping, it might not be a surprise.

It usually turns into a positive when Lukacs’ anger shows.

“She’s determined to make it happen,” Overton said. “We’ve all seen that in her.”

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