Two teams celebrated an opportunity to compete in the final round of the NCAA national championships. In that same moment, a youthful Georgia gymnastics team sat in a corner of the floor with blank stares.
A feeling of defeat set in as the GymDogs’ last-place score flashed onto the scoreboard at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
Their head coach, Courtney Kupets Carter, didn’t know where energy would come from after that moment. A whirlwind of a season. A new addition to the family. A step of program growth, but ultimately falling short of the goal of reaching the final round. But all it took was a return to her Stegeman Coliseum digs.
She glanced once more at the program’s legacy and what it can become once again. Reaching the peak of a score over 198, developing a crowd of young athletes and having a clear sight of program direction. Any brief lethargy was gone, and excitement flowed through the head coach’s energetic veins.
Now it’s year three. Not too long ago was Kupets Carter standing at a press conference beginning a return to her alma mater.
“It feels great. Yeah, I can believe it,” Kupets Carter said. “We’ve had a lot happen. A lot of exciting. A lot of hard. I’m not having another child this year, so that’s exciting. I know what this team can do with a year under their belt. I want to start now.”
In the midst of recruiting, meetings and trying to fine-tune daily routines in order to discover sustained success, Kupets Carter sat down with The Telegraph. Her wide-ranging discussion touches on team goals, an incoming signing class and the landscape of college gymnastics.
This Q&A has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Looking back at the NCAA run with the 198, did you see this program’s returned vision come to fruition for a brief moment?
Yes, because the beginning of season was rocky with some great moments in between. Beating Florida was great for this team, so was beating Utah at the end of the year. You could really feel the nervousness headed into their first postseason at SECs. We did what we could in the weeks following, then regionals was absolutely amazing. That really put it all together, but that’s really difficult to do twice. We weren’t able to do that this year and go into nationals at that peak performance type of level. We will do a few different things to utilize that and make sure our season looks like that.
It’s hard to be continually consistent toward the end, so that’s something we are going to work on for next year. Overall, this season was a step above from where we needed to be. I want the sun, stars and the moon all together — that’s the goal and the vision. I’m always looking to shoot the expectation as high as I can, so we can constantly try to get more. I would’ve wanted to get into the Top 4, but we made so many strides from the first year.
Q: I’ve heard the keyword consistency quite a bit toward the end of the season. How do you try to extract that within this group? Does it become a difficult task?
It’s about our work in the gym, and it shouldn’t be hard to find. There were some injuries and different factors, but you’re going to have it every year. That’s what hurts your consistency, though, so we’ll have to change up assignments and keep them on their toes a bit. It’ll be fun.
We always want to go a little higher. I talked a lot last year about starting strong and finding our peak. It’s different this (coming) year, we need to start strong and stay strong. That’s because our postseason is so different now, because you’re asking them to be strong for five meets in five weeks. We need to find that stride in our season, and it’ll be difficult to continue it through the postseason if we don’t.
We’re going to find those landings a bit sooner, and it’ll be about hitting them right when mandatory (practice) starts. We will start a little bit differently at the beginning of mandatory with single skills instead of group skills, so they can get do those exactly how they want them done. We also did conditioning before practice last year to build them up, but we need a more time in the gym and will do that after. I definitely changed a lot of little things so we find that consistency when season starts.
Q: Finally, the nine freshmen that were talked about last season aren’t freshmen anymore. Now a year older, what can these girls bring to the team’s core?
I’m really excited for that group, especially because we invested so much time and effort into them this past year. We had to magnify the transition a freshman has by nine, and that’s two-thirds of your team. I’m excited they have a season under their belt. They’ll be ready to go, and they can bring the new freshmen in so it won’t be as big of an effect.
I have a little thing about all of them. Alexa (Al-Hameed) was amazing on bars for us. I want to push her on beam, because she’s beautiful on it. I want Mikayla (Magee) to come out of her shell more. (Rachael) Lukacs is absolutely powerful and beautiful, but we could clean some things up a bit more. We’re looking forward to improving those small areas, but they’re different for each of them.
Q: More freshmen enter the fold as your previous group grows up. In which ways do the newcomers excite you?
It’ll be great to round it out with these four athletes. We have Soraya (Hawthorne), and I don’t even know how to describe her. She will be someone where everyone knows her name in her first year. She’s powerful and has this fun energy when she competes. She’s also very quiet, but wants it when she’s out on that floor. She wants you to watch her.
(Loulie) Hattaway is a bar specialist, that’s her main event and one she can really help us out with that.
Amanda Cashman is very bubbly and can help us out in a lot of ways. Haley De Jong is another Canadian, and her and Megan (Roberts) knew each other prior. That’ll be a fun dynamic. Haley has a high standard in life, and has a good foundation to the fact of great gymnastics, pushing herself in school. It’s more than I’ve ever seen an elite athlete do. She’ll have some good variety mixed in, and this will be a bubbly group of personality.
Q: A trend has been noticed across gymnastics with gymnasts choosing the elite route before entering college. How does that make recruiting more difficult, if at all? How can Georgia recruit the elite gymnasts in bunches like LSU, UCLA and Oklahoma?
I love to think of it as college is the best thing you could do coming out of a high level. We have a few who are making money, doing well with their careers and not going to college. It’s nice to see young gymnasts looking at college in a positive way. A lot of that has to do with televised meets, and they’re able to see that it’s real and not just a dumbed-down version of gymnastics. It’s hard, competitive and fun. It brings the love back to those who have a job in gymnastics.
For us, there are two different things. One is that we haven’t won a championship in several years here, so that’s something our staff is going to have to prove. You go where your friends go and where you know. We need to start to create and build Georgia as one of those places. You see your competitors more often in the elite world, and you become friends with them. On the J.O. level, you don’t see that as much and who you know is more local.
Q: Circling back to your own roster, Emily Schild and Marissa Oakley are now juniors, while Rachel Dickson and Sabrina Vega are your senior leaders. How is Emily’s injury recovery going in order to return to the group? How do Rachel and Sabrina fit in as leaders?
(Emily)’s doing a great job right now, but it’s very minimal until she gets stronger. It’s going to be a long road to recovery. She’s still in a full-leg brace and non-weight bearing right now. She had an MCL tear and they had to put two screws into the bone below her knee. There was a hole in the bone. It will be a tough road, so she has to put in the time.
There are steps (Vega and Dickson) have to make as leaders, but we’re excited to work with them. They do a lot of events, and that in themselves can help them be leaders with how they act. They’re very different in their styles, but that’s the best thing we could ask for. We have a great group coming up.