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‘This is special’: GymDogs ready to take floor at nationals with visions of advancing

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.

All of the enthusiasm surrounding the Georgia GymDogs’ highest score in 10 years dwindled down in Stegeman Coliseum following the NCAA regionals.

As a few of the Georgia GymDogs walked off the floor after posting a 198.050 (its highest mark at a regional since 1998), they were stopped by a security event staffer who watched all of the action from afar.

“We have been here since the start of Georgia gymnastics, and we appreciate all you guys are doing,” junior Sabrina Vega said while recalling the moment. “We feel this is coming back.”

There hadn’t been a moment of such exuberance around the program since 2009, and it was all reaffirmed by someone who spends nearly an entire spring semester inside those doors.

This is a gymnastics program that was booming under the tutelage of former head coach Suzanne Yoculan. A run of 10 national titles (five consecutive) speaks for itself. After Yoculan’s retirement and a change in direction, however, the GymDogs looked different. There was still a reputation around the program, but it wasn’t close to what Georgia was used to.

On the night of regionals, glory returned. The dynamic duo of Yoculan Leebern and her former star gymnast turned head coach Courtney Kupets Carter was back. So were the high scores. Georgia felt legitimately good again.

“I heard that from an outsider, someone who loves Georgia and can see that fire coming back,” Vega said. “That’s incredible, and that’s what we do it for. We’re doing something right.”

Fast forward two weeks and step inside the Fort Worth Convention Center. Georgia was back at nationals and looked like it belonged. It didn’t seem like the team that missed the finals in two of three seasons — and a last-place finish in the final season — before the Kupets Carter era. It looked more like the group that walked away in first, second or third place each season from 1998-2009.

Many of the GymDogs’ practices resembled Thursday’s: laid back but instructive. There were plenty of laughs, moments of teaching, nonchalant mimicking of floor routines. At that very moment, the past and present of Georgia gymnastics was vividly seen in Kupets Carter standing beside her volunteer coach, mentor and blueprint designer Yoculan Leebern (who sported a white fanny pack with gold studs decked across the top. It complemented a quarter-zip jacket for quite the fashion statement).

“This (postseason run) is special, because regionals was such a good meet,” senior Sydney Snead said. “It’s such a blessing to have the first 198 in (10) years. We’re building this back up to how it should be, and that makes it exciting.”

Georgia opens competition in the second semifinal paired up with top-seeded Oklahoma, Denver and Oregon State (7 p.m., ESPNU/2). As with regionals competition, the top two teams out of each semifinal advance to the national championship on Saturday evening. Friday’s first semifinal includes UCLA, LSU, Utah and Michigan.

While Georgia is riding high on its latest performance, it is also taking perspective on how it reached this point. Entering this postseason, the format change of eight teams advancing out of four regionals (opposed from 12 out of six regionals) made it more difficult for each team to advance. Based on Georgia’s regional alone, each of the four teams would’ve advanced with the five highest scores if it weren’t based on a bracket style.

“This is an honor, because not every team gets here,” Vega said. “It is incredible being one of the eight teams, but I take it as just another meet. I try to enjoy myself and make sure the team is having fun, because that’s when we do our best.”

One word on Georgia’s mind throughout the season was determined. It’s a quality seen from the upperclassmen and the many contributing freshman. Kupets Carter, in fact, searches for it when evaluating each of her gymnasts and craves their competitive mentality.

They set a high mark for their peak score, and met it — otherwise known to the team as “climbing the mountain.” Georgia thought it could have success at nationals, and that’s the next test. It’s not about making an appearance, but advancing and reaching the goal of finishing in the top three.

But Friday’s field doesn’t allow much room for error.

“We can’t set boundaries on ourselves, but we also can’t think about the next day,” Kupets Carter said. “There’s a big possibility for this team to make it through to the second day. I’m visualizing it and I see it happening. If we are focusing on tomorrow, they’re not going to make it through.”

Once Georgia walks back into the arena Friday evening, it’ll feel the same support — at least to a degree. Georgia is known for selling out its arena for each meet, and some of its fans are making the trip to the Lone Star State to finish out the season. Georgia and UCLA are expecting the most fans to make appearances, Kupets Carter said, and a large group convened inside the practice gym before the GymDogs departed.

Wednesday’s open practice event resulted in such a large showing to where there weren’t enough foldable chairs to seat everyone who made the trip. There were groups finding seating on the gym floor, and a sign directing fans to the event was removed shortly after it began. Georgia hopes for more of the same, because that element has shown to escalate performance.

“We really get a push, because they are ready for that interaction and environment to boost their level of gymnastics,” Kupets Carter said. “It makes them feel excited, because it brings this level of ‘they’re here to watch us.’ We are so thankful.”

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