Bulldogs Beat

Kupets Carter’s ‘legend’ status creates unique coaching experience for GymDogs squad

Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter talks to her girls before the start of a gymnastics meet between the University of Georgia and Iowa State University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw)
Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter talks to her girls before the start of a gymnastics meet between the University of Georgia and Iowa State University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw) Special to the Telegraph

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In a venue where an array of memories have been made, it’s commonplace to reflect on the past and how it has led to the present. Sydney Snead does so prior to a meet at Stegeman Coliseum, but it’s not about her past seasons at Georgia, at least not in this instance.

It’s about her coach, Courtney Kupets Carter, and the face of Georgia gymnastics that is plastered across the arena. The hard-to-miss sight is a 40-foot mural of the program’s most-decorated gymnast hung behind the back-wall scoreboard, and it gives Snead a flash of amazement each time she sees it.

“I’ll look over and say ‘Courtney, how does it feel to be in center?’” Snead said. “It’s kind of funny because it’s like ‘You’re still really popular around here, you know?’”

Regardless of whether you enter Stegeman Coliseum via the main doors or the training facility entrance, Kupets Carter’s face can be seen before crossing the threshold. In the hallway outside the practice gym, her face can be seen nine times in an about 200-foot span.

Georgia recently changed its gymnastics graphics around the arena, and Kupets Carter said those decisions were based on who did it first, most and most-recently. She was trying to defer the spotlight, but sorry to say, all three of those accolades go to herself.

“Yeah, I just have to avoid my face everywhere,” Kupets Carter said.

Georgia’s second-year head coach is one of the most-recognizable faces in this athletic program, and the likes of Herschel Walker and Dominique Wilkins may be the only others to top the spotlight by Kupets Carter. Nine years after her collegiate career, she returned and the Olympic medals and national titles can now evolve into bringing Georgia’s program back to competing for championships.

For those she now mentors, however, there’s a moment of amazement. Many of Georgia’s gymnasts idolized Kupets Carter, both in her days as an Olympian and a GymDog. Snead has typed in her head coach’s name into YouTube numerous times, while Sabrina Vega grew up watching Kupets Carter as an Olympian before the GymDogs’ junior switched career paths. For others, it served as a recruiting pitch.

Rachel Dickson was doing some training in Texas at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, glanced up at a television screen and saw Kupets Carter competing on floor collegiately. Dickson came to Georgia as a recruit under Danna Durante, but it was that moment that led the now-all-around GymDog to end up in Athens.

“Her four years centered around why I wanted to come to Georgia,” Dickson said. “She is the best college gymnast ever, and it’s amazing to think about. Sometimes, when she talks, I think ‘I’m listening to a legend.’”

Any use of the word “legend” might be hyperbolic in many cases, but Kupets Carter’s career at Georgia alone fits it. In her four-year career, which includes one missed season due to injury, the list of accomplishments are lengthy: four team national titles, eight SEC event championships, nine individual NCAA titles and a 15-time All-American.

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SEC “fill in the blank” of the Year winners David Knoef Special to the Telegraph

As it may be hard to beat that, the NCAA validated it in 2017 by naming her the best-ever collegiate women’s gymnast.

“She’s the face of Georgia gymnastics forever,” Snead said. “She’s obviously such a stud, and to be able to be coached by her is unbelievable.”

Added Kupets Carter: “That’s where I learned from — as a gymnast. That’s where all of my strategies and techniques come from. There are so many experiences to bring a team together, and it’s really about relating to them.”

Those days came-and-went, then the next moment of shock for the current group of GymDogs came when Kupets Carter was hired. She was selected less than three weeks after Durante was fired by athletics director Greg McGarity, and Suzanne Yoculan Leebern was announced as her volunteer coach. A power dynamic was back to revive Georgia gymnastics.

Vega was back home in Carmel, New York for summer vacation when she and her teammates got word of the news. It was a team-wide conference call, and Vega had to hit the mute button. She wanted to scream.

“I yelled ‘MOM! IT’S COURTNEY!’” said Vega, who added her mother, Jahaira Vega, had no clue what she was referencing. “I was so excited, because she was one of my role models. Obviously, she’s a legend at the University of Georgia.”

From the moment Kupets Carter stepped back on campus, there was a vision in mind. She had a unique connection to the program, one that Yoculan Leebern called a “dream.” Kupets Carter’s only previous coaching experience has come with Oconee Gymnastics, but she has experienced the glory days of the program. There’s a blueprint on how to approach the role and she wants to bring success back along with more.

“It’s what stems everything I do from building relationships with athletes to spending extra time in the gym or with the coaching staff,” Kupets Carter said. “Those moments (as a gymnast) is the sole purpose of why I’m here, and changed me into who I am today in only four years. That’s what I want to continue to bring to Georgia gymnasts.”

When she’s back on the floor, it’s like the old days once more. Except this time, there’s a large, 40-foot reminder of herself.

“I still feel the environment and what it felt like to be a competitor,” Kupets Carter said. “Every single time. It makes you feel good. There aren’t many colleges with that feel.”