Whenever the GymDogs head into Stegeman Coliseum, junior Sydney Snead takes some time to joke with her coach, Courtney Kupets Carter, whose picture is on the wall that overlooks the competition floor.
“I’m like, ‘Courtney, you’re more famous than any of us,’” Snead said. “‘You’re so famous and popular, you’re literally the front of Stegeman, how does that feel?’”
Kupets Carter tries to downplay the attention.
“She’s always like, ‘Oh, stop,’” Snead said. “‘I’m like, ‘Courtney, you’re a big deal.’”
It’s hard to ignore Kupets Carter pointing straight at the audience in Stegeman. It’s even harder to ignore her place in the gymnastics record book. She is considered the greatest gymnast in NCAA history, with four team and nine individual NCAA titles. She won eight SEC titles and two Honda Awards, and was a 15-time All-American. She won a team silver medal and a bronze on uneven bars at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Now, she’s tasked with a new challenge — returning the GymDogs to the top of collegiate gymnastics. She was hired in May after Georgia parted ways with coach Danna Durante, who guided the GymDogs to a 12th place finish at 2017 NCAAs.
Kupets Carter will coach her first official college meet today when the GymDogs open their season at Alabama (0-1) at 8:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Kupets Carter said she first started thinking about coaching when she was a student manager in college. But her club coach at Maryland, Kelli Hill, gave her some advice: Pursue everything else first because once you get into coaching, it’s hard to get out.
And so began the winding path from Georgia back to Georgia. Kupets Carter worked camps every year, she said, but tried everything else. She worked in marketing with adidas gymnastics. She met her husband, Chris, at her sister Ashley’s wedding. He lived in Las Vegas where he performed Le Reve. Kupets Carter worked briefly in the show.
“I realized I was not the performer anymore,” Kupets Carter said in June. “You have to really love to be out in that spotlight to be in that performing role every day and I realized I wanted to be on the backside. I wanted to be the one helping the athletes, not the one actually doing it anymore.”
She pursued a few assistant coaching opportunities at some Big 10 programs, but the timing wasn’t quite right. The pair moved back to Athens — where Kupets Carter’s family lives — with their daughter, Brooklyn. Kupets Carter gave birth to a boy this summer.
She took a role as a gymnastics analyst for the SEC Network and coached level two gymnasts at Oconee Gymnastics and Cheer in Watkinsville.
The analyst role was like a crash course in coaching. Kupets Carter said she’d be moving her arms in the direction of what the gymnasts on the floor were doing. She talked with different coaches weekly. Some schools are trying to mirror the reign Kupets Carter was part of at Georgia — while putting their own spin on it.
“I would watch and be invested and get to learn all the different ways the coaches worked,” Kupets Carter said. “Sometimes I’d have ideas of oh, I would do this or I would do that, and just seeing what really worked for some of these coaches and what didn’t.”
At Oconee Gymnastics and Cheer, Kupets Carter wasn’t preparing athletes for national titles. She was literally teaching them how to do a backward roll. The goal was to help her gymnasts nail down the proper technique for the basics and get on the right track. The teams excelled at the state level.
“I had never tried to break down a backward roll so many ways in my life,” Kupets Carter said. “You think with a backward roll you just push backwards and some kids just weren’t getting it. How do you break down a backward roll even more? It was just so interesting for me to kind of feel that, but at the same time, it’s funny to see how little kids all have that different way of learning, just like older kids, so I think that’s what’s no different.”
“Club gymnastics is very hard to coach because you’re developing the child,” Oconee Gymnastics and Cheer owner Katina Buffa said in July. “If they have some bad habits or just because of who they are with feet turned in or hips, you have to break those bad habits and correct them.”
When the Georgia job came open, something inside her urged her to apply, Kupets Carter said. Buffa said she dove into preparation, readying herself to answer the variety of questions that would be thrown at her.
The prep worked. Kupets Carter was named the head coach at Georgia, despite never coaching at the collegiate level.
“I know it’s a big role to take on without having some prior experience at another school, but at the same time, I know deep within I can do this and it’s something that honestly I’ve been groomed for just with all the different areas I’ve worked in,” Kupets Carter said. “College coaching is not just about the coaching. It’s about the marketing; it’s about the promotions; it’s about working with people; it’s about making sure these athletes transition from being a gymnast to being a person out in the real world.”
The gymnasts see it, too. Something’s changed in the gym, Snead said.
“The confidence level has gone up. You can just see it in everyone,” Snead said. “Just the way that they walk, the way that they do gymnastics. That’s been awesome to see how much everyone’s grown this past year. I’m really excited to see how we can use all that we’ve been working on in the gym and see how it transfers over to an away meet, too.”