Courtney Kupets Carter returns to Georgia
posted on 05/24/2017

© Steven Colquitt

By Nick McCarvel

From Athens, Greece, to Athens, Georgia, Courtney Kupets Carter has put together a sparkling gymnastics career. Next for her résumé: Collegiate head coach.

The Olympic medalist and nine-time individual NCAA champion was hired as the University of Georgia’s head women’s gymnastics earlier this month, marking a return to her alma mater for the former Gym Dog.

“I’m excited to be part of so many athletes’ college careers to help give the same experience that I got not only in gymnastics at Georgia, but also in reaching their full potential as people,” Kupets Carter, 30, told USA Gymnastics in a phone interview.

Having graduated from Georgia in 2009 after helping the team to three titles in her three competitive seasons (she sat out her junior year with an Achilles injury), Kupets Carter was a student coach in 2009-10.

She earned her masters in sport management from UGA – interning in the athletic department at the time – and since has coached club gymnastics and served as a commentator at both the collegiate and Olympic levels.

But after the firing of coach Danna Durante last month, Kupets Carter saw an opportunity for herself that many others wouldn’t have predicted.

“I told myself, ‘I can do that,’” she said. “I knew I could help this program and I feel so passionate about it.”

Green in the collegiate coaching sphere, Kupets Carter will have the help of the coach many consider the best ever in women’s college gymnastics: Suzanne Yoculan Leebern.

Yoculan Leebern, who led Georgia to 10 national titles in her 27 seasons at the helm – culminating in Kupets Carter’s senior year in 2009 – will serve as a volunteer coach for the 2017-18 season.

“I feel like Courtney was born to coach here,” Yoculan Leebern said in an interview. “I don’t think I have ever been this excited about Georgia gymnastics except for the first time we filled the arena in 1995.”

Georgia hopes to bring that same excitement – and winning style – back to Athens that was fervent in the days of Yoculan Leebern. After winning five national titles from 2005-09 (and finishing runner-up three times between 2001 and 2004), Georgia hasn’t placed in the top two at the NCAAs in the last eight seasons. It finished outside the top 10 in the final NCAA team rankings this season, and did not make the Super Six final in St. Louis last month, finishing 12th overall.

“They had a decent year this last season where they had a lot of positives but a couple of negatives, too,” Kupets Carter said. “That’s where I want to build the confidence in them so they can hit their gymnastics. I think there is definitely room for improvement.”

Georgia graduates five seniors, but Sabrina Vega, a member of the 2011 U.S. team that won World Championship gold, returns for her sophomore season.

It’s that kind of realm of experience – Worlds, the Olympics and three seasons of college gymnastics – that Kupets Carter believes will help her be able to relate with the Georgia team in her new role.

“Just because you’re a good athlete does not mean you’re going to be a good coach, but one aspect of my personality that fits well into being a coach is that I like to see all sides,” she explained. “I’m not someone who sees one way as the only way to get there. Yes, I’ve been to the Olympics, and I have those national championships, but I also have been through hard times like tearing my Achilles and having to sit out an entire year in college not being able to compete and figuring out my role on the team then.”

© Chris McGrath
Kupets Carter was all-around champion at the elite level in both 2003 and 2004 (the latter in a tie with Carly Patterson) before helping the U.S. to silver in Athens that summer. Individually, Kupets won bronze on uneven bars while finishing ninth in the all-around. She won the gold medal on the uneven bars at the 2002 World Championships, and was a member of the 2003 World Championships team that earned Team USA its first-ever world team title.

She sees her leadership ability and experience as an athlete as two of her biggest strengths coming into the job, but sees a challenge in figuring out the right team dynamics to sort out for UGA, which she wants to win SEC and NCAA titles once again.

She and her husband, former British acro gymnast Chris Carter, have an 18-month-old daughter named Brooklyn. She’s also due in July with another baby, a boy.

“This baby couldn’t have come at a better time,” she said, laughing – but in seriousness. “It’s a lot of change and adjustment, for sure, but I will get everything in order. My family is here and (the team isn’t) competing right now. Honestly, timing-wise, I think it worked out fantastically.”

Yoculan Leebern, for her part, thinks it’s fantastic that Georgia thought “outside the box” in hiring Kupets Carter. The legendary coach sees her volunteer role as an advisory one, there to help the newbie Kupets Carter navigate some of the “fires that need to be put out” as head coach.

“I’m always behind this program,” Yoculan Leebern said. “It’s been a little difficult because I have a big shadow that some people don’t care for. … (But) it’s exciting to have someone leading this program that everyone is in awe of in Courtney. Not just because she won everything and had nine individual titles, but because she represented Georgia as an ambassador so eloquently and with so much grace and style and class. It was always about her team.”

While the constant flow of news out of Georgia has been Courtney-focused the last two weeks, Kupets Carter plans to put the team first throughout her tenure. And – she hopes – that will bring UGA back to its former dominant state in women’s college gymnastics.

“National championships – SEC championships – will always be our goals, but it shouldn’t just be about me and what I want,” she said. “I want to know what we are going to try and achieve as a group.”

“Yes, I want them to be the best gymnasts as possible, but we have to work as a team. At the end of the day, it’s not individual names listed on a national championship plaque, it’s the team, the University of Georgia. That’s the biggest part of where I can play into this.”