Bulldogs Beat

Why Suzanne Yoculan Leebern chose to depart from UGA gymnastics: ‘It worked out perfectly’

When Suzanne Yoculan Leebern made her heralded return to Georgia gymnastics, it came with a detailed two-year plan.

As each season passed, Yoculan Leebern’s responsibilities as volunteer assistant coach would progressively lessen. She’d prepare Courtney Kupets Carter’s head coaching career for liftoff and once two years elapsed, the program’s architect would bid farewell.

“We thought that would be enough time for me to mentor her and share my ideas,” Yoculan Leebern said in a phone interview Thursday with The Telegraph. “I sort of laid out a road map to her and the staff, and once the season was over, that was it. We never discussed any other options. It worked out perfectly.”

Her first season back in the fold after a 28-year coaching career likened to that of a full-time job: helping in the office, sharing her experience with each coach and attending each meeting. Through the second season of Kupets Carter’s tenure, Georgia ascended and Yoculan Leebern hid in the shadows a bit more. She skipped mornings and appeared only for coaches’ meetings and practices throughout the week.

A late April evening became the last the famed player-coach duo would be together in an official capacity. After Georgia saw its season end in the NCAA championships, Yoculan Leebern walked away from coaching for the final time. The plan, in which so few knew of its rigidity, was complete.

She said she wouldn’t want it any other way. She also believes Georgia gymnastics is back in its optimal spot and foresees a championship in the near future.

“There are so many things I took from her,” Kupets Carter said. “She never quits, has a strong mentality and always wants to push for more. That is the biggest thing I’ve taken.”

Suzanne Yoculan Leebern as seen in her head coaching days at University of Georgia. Georgia Sports Communications

Georgia will hire another volunteer assistant coach to replace Yoculan Leebern, but no official announcement has been made.

Now, Yoculan Leebern passes the torch to a legend of her own with full faith in Georgia’s group of full-time assistants -- Jason Vonk and Josh Overton.

“I’m honored to (have worked) with her,” said senior Sabrina Vega with tears in her eyes after NCAA championships. “Having her back for two years was incredible. I’m beyond thankful and speechless thinking she’d come back with that dedication. You can tell how much she loves Georgia.”

Yoculan Leebern’s passion for Georgia gymnastics eternally runs deep, so she will find ways to be involved as Kupets Carter’s career lives on. She is becoming co-president of the 10-0 booster club and the alumni’s legacy club. She’s had a focus on promotions and enhancing fan experience from the moment she returned to the program.

In these roles, Yoculan Leebern plans to continue principles that began in her first years as head coach. She had a mantra of making gymnastics a family sport, and she analogized it by “never wanting a ticket to be more than the price of a movie at the theater.” There’s an ongoing goal to continuously integrate that with dedication to alumni and the program’s loyal members.

And for those Friday night meets? Yoculan Leebern hopes to be seen there, too.

“Courtney is trying to find a way for me to have a presence on the floor during competitions,” she said. “We want everyone to know that Courtney and I are forever bound together. I support her 100% and Georgia gymnastics is always my home.”

Yoculan Leebern’s departure from gymnastics allows for a long-awaited opportunity: spending legitimate time with family. Those life moments were dimmed during her days as a head coach, and they’re revived after her latest decision. Yoculan Leebern has three grandchildren, one of whom lives in Athens with her daughter who expects baby No. 2 in October.

A visit to her other two grandchildren allows for some relaxation in Boulder, Colorado -- she already has a trip planned to Colorado next week.

“I had to put some of that on the backburner and that’s why I was only willing to commit two years,” Yoculan Leebern said. “I want to be a part of their lives and not miss anything. I missed so much with my children being a college coach. It’s a hard balance for women.”

Georgia undergoes a significant change as the brief assistant Yoculan Leebern era comes to a close. But one with advantageous potential. No longer does the program’s perception revolve around what Yoculan Leebern stands for, but Kupets Carter can now thrive and emerge from a shadow.

With that, Yoculan Leebern envisions one of Georgia’s most-prosperous seasons in a “long, long time.”

“She’s been able to tweak, do things her way and develop her own culture,” she said. “She’s got a road map that she’s developed, and it started off with parts that I put on it. She’s put the rest of the pieces together. Georgia gymnastics is well on its way.”