Bulldogs Beat

A young GymDog squad with new confidence, swagger wants to put program ‘back on top’

Georgia’s gymnastics team celebrates during a gymnastics meet between the University of Georgia and Ohio State University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw)
Georgia’s gymnastics team celebrates during a gymnastics meet between the University of Georgia and Ohio State University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw) Special to the Telegraph

During one of the team’s first preseason practices, Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter designed a group activity with floor routines on a soft surface.

She implemented a point system where a gymnast would receive one point to do the exercise as instructed and a bonus point if the drill was attempted on a hard surface. Rachael Lukacs wanted to take things a step further and built upon a double pike to earn a third point.

“If I do a double layout with my legs together and stick it, can I get three points?” Lukacs said (at least from what Kupets Carter recalled) in an enthusiastic tone of voice.

Oh, the new athlete trying to over-achieve. It was one of Lukacs’ first practices as a GymDog and she carried an eagerness to go above-and-beyond. It was something that Kupets Carter and her staff became instantly fond of. Lukacs was named SEC Freshman of the Week after her collegiate debut against Ohio State, so it must’ve paid off.

It’s a part of what Georgia has this season and the first time in quite a while: a rejuvenated swagger. There’s no more worry about only having five competitors on each event and the GymDogs can show their true abilities.

“You can go 100 percent when you have a lineup with six,” junior Sabrina Vega said. “You have that slight room for error, but last year you really had to tighten up. It was five up, five down. There’s a lot of depth and a lot of talent, so we won’t have to worry about that.”

There’s an interesting dynamic to the GymDogs this season in regard to having nine freshmen and only five returners. It’s something that makes Kupets Carter treat this season like her first as a head coach all over again, but that doesn’t mean Georgia’s goals aren’t lofty.

After making it to nationals in 2018 following a late-season climb that put Georgia at No. 7 in the rankings, there’s hope to get back to that same point and finish higher than fourth. But this is a tad different, because it’s more of an expectation rather than a hope.

To Georgia, it doesn’t matter that there are nine freshmen and six of them were in a lineup at Stegeman Coliseum for the first time ever on Jan. 5. It goes back to the readiness and eagerness of the group, and Vega insists the buy-in has already occurred. That has led to the jaw-dropping skill from Alexa Al-Hameed on bars and a 9.9 on vault from Lukacs.

“I wouldn’t deny us,” said junior Rachel Dickson, who has a new skill on each event. Kupets Carter believed Dickson would’ve become bored in the offseason if it weren’t for new challenges. “Having six girls compete as freshmen for the first time ever in Stegeman is unbelievable, and they are ready to get going. As they get a little more experience under their belt, we’ll go far.”

Georgia’s improvements were seen at the season’s outset. It was when a different ambiance within the team was noticeable, and the GymDogs believe that work was put in during the fall — well before the season started. Dickson’s belief is that yes, the meets are important, but all of the work is done beforehand.

It’s somewhat similar to Kirby Smart’s mentality of “practice is harder than the games” with the Bulldogs’ football team. The GymDogs had a number of intrasquad meets to practice the new skills, which now allows them to display a set of new-look routines. Those include a vault from Dickson that mimics that of Kupets Carter in her competing days, a new bar release from Marissa Oakley and Emily Schild and a host of other changes.”

“That’s what the excitement is,” Kupets Carter said. “What they want to accomplish this year is so big, and their heart for it is so strong. That’s what will push their skills to be better.”

After the win over Ohio State, Georgia’s following meet against top-ranked Oklahoma didn’t have near the same success. The GymDogs posted a 195.300 and had three scores of 9.1 and under, but there were positives to take from the defeat. Most notably, Sydney Snead tied a career-high with a 9.95 on vault and Georgia posted its second-highest vault total (49.300) in Kupets Carter’s tenure.

Georgia’s swagger has returned, and this young group won’t let a lack of experience define it.

“It’s that hunger for more,” Vega said. “We had the taste last year, and now it was like ‘we need this.’ It’s about getting Georgia back on top.”