Now in her senior year of competition at the University of Georgia, 2002 world uneven bars champion Courtney Kupets describes how courage, humility and faith have sustained her through three serious injuries.
Kupets credits physical, mental and spiritual forces for helping her overcome a torn left Achilles' tendon in 2003, a hip injury that impacted her performances at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, and a torn right Achilles' tendon in 2008. As Kupets' career draws to a close, she is now preparing to help earn Georgia its fourth NCAA team title in as many years.
Born July 27, 1986, Kupets trained during her international career under coaches Kelli Hill and Jen Bundy at Hill's Gymnastics in Gaithersburg, Md. She placed second all-around at the 2002 American Cup, and first on uneven bars at the 2002 World Championships in Debrecen, Hungary. In June 2003 Kupets won the U.S. all-around title, but was unable to compete in the finals at the 2003 World Championships in Anaheim after she tore her left Achilles' tendon in a training session.
Kupets' recovery from her 2003 injury was quick and remarkable. In 2004 she tied Carly Patterson for the U.S. all-around title and placed first at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Hampered by an unspoken hip injury at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Kupets still won two medals (silver in the team competition, bronze on uneven bars), and placed fifth on balance beam and ninth all-around.
Following the 2004 Olympics, Kupets embarked on the collegiate phase of her career. As a Georgia freshman in 2006 she won the all-around title, tied for first on uneven bars and balance beam, and led Georgia to the team title at the NCAA Championships. As a sophomore Kupets repeated as the NCAA all-around champion, placed first on vault and again led Georgia to team victory. Kupets tore her right Achilles' tendon in a March 2008 dual meet and was sidelined for the rest of the season. Georgia went on to win the NCAA title that year.
IG Online spoke with Kupets in Los Angeles on March 8, after she placed first all-around at a dual meet against UCLA. In this interview, Kupets recalls the high and low moments of her career, and describes how she has maintained her focus and fitness.
Courtney Kupets (Univ. of Georgia)
IG: What kept you going, after you tore your Achilles' last year? How tempted were you to stop, considering that the injury occurred late in your junior year?
CK: I've done gymnastics my entire life, and I wasn't going to go out on an injury. I wanted to go out doing big gymnastics, having fun and doing all for events, of course. I did the same thing before the 2004 Olympics. I tore my Achilles' tendon and was back in six months. This time, I was back in eight months. I had plenty of time. I wanted to finish out my senior year. I was so thankful that it was my junior year, and not my senior year, when I got injured.
IG: Injuring different Achilles' tendons twice on the same tumbling element (Arabian double front), were you apprehensive at all about competing that skill again, or did you consider switching it out for something safer?
CK: I thought about another pass, but there really wasn't another pass I wanted to do. I had done double layouts before, but it wasn't something as good, when you're competing every week and when you land short. So I thought I'd give it (Arabian double front) another try. It probably didn't turn out as well as it could when I first started doing it again, but it's gotten better in every meet this year. I figure I've torn both of my Achilles', so I'm good to go now (laughs).
IG: Is this attitude what kept you going in 2003, knowing that the Olympics were so close?
CK: I don't like to stop on something bad. I like to push through and show people that, if you persevere, you can do anything you want.
IG: In Athens (2004 Olympics), you really didn't talk to the press about your hip injury or use it as an excuse for your performance.
CK: There is no excuse. Everyone is in pain. We're gymnasts, and we're going to have injuries, so it's just a matter of how headstrong you are to get through them.
IG: Is this really the end of your career, considering that Mohini Bhardwaj made an Olympic team after college?
CK: It's great to see that happen, and it's like, "Wow, if she can do it, anyone can." You have to be motivated, of course, but yes, this will be the end for me. I'll be moving on!
IG: What are you going to do with yourself, based on your major (Housing/Property Management and Consumer Economics)?
CK: I was an interior design major, but I switched. I like development. I'd like to travel around the country designing floor plans, blueprints and things like that. I just love real estate. But I think I'm going to go to grad school or law school first. I don't know if I'll stay in Georgia. It would be nice to go somewhere different if I had the opportunity, but I love Georgia.
IG: Would you consider something like Cirque du Soleil, like your sister (former Hill's and Georgia gymnast Ashley) is doing?
CK: How crazy! But I don't think I'll do that. It's definitely exciting for her, but I think my tour experience after the Olympics is what she's doing now, and it's her taste of it. It's a lot of fun, but I think I'll go into the work force. But I'm always going to be in touch with gymnastics. I can never let it go completely, but I won't be performing myself!
IG: Although this is your last year of NCAA eligibility, will you be graduating this spring?
CK: I have a whole year [left], and it's awesome. I am glad it happened like that. I felt like college was weaning me off gymnastics, taking me out of it without completely dropping it. When you're a high-level athlete, to completely stop is just crazy. You don't know what to do with yourself. You don't know what to do with your life. So college has taught me that gymnastics isn't something you do your entire life. You progressively stop. Next year I'll have school without gymnastics. It will be interesting, and I'm excited for it.
IG: What is the story behind the 15 pairs of boxing gloves you brought into the locker room before a recent meet?
CK: Every year we've done something different. In 2006 we had "Bling It" glasses with sparkles on them, and it was fun because we were going to try to "bling" the championship home. This year, I was like, "We need something." All of us are fighters. When we're down, we fight, and we wanted to start fighting before we were even down - for ourselves and our team. We wanted to bring everyone together, so instead of some cheesy little gift, why not bring real boxing gloves and sort of punch around? I didn't tell anyone before we brought them out, and they were so excited, and I was excited that they were, too. We had some ups and downs in the meets prior to that. We'd have a really great and then a not really great meet. It was like, "We need to get into this. We need to have fun and be energetic and enthusiastic." It was just a gimmick, and gimmicks are fun sometimes. It really did help our competition.
Courtney Kupets (Univ. of Georgia)
IG: What is your motivation for continuing to compete your hardest skills, when with college rules you could probably score well with less?
CK: We've always been told by (Georgia head coach) Suzanne (Yoculan) that we can always go back to easier skills if we're not doing the bigger ones cleanly. But if we're doing the big ones cleanly, there's no need for us to do the smaller skills. College gymnastics is all about hitting those handstands and sticking those landings, so if we can do those big skills, why not have great gymnastics?
IG: Looking back, which moments of your career stand out the most?
CK: There are two things. The first was before college, when I won the gold medal on bars at the 2002 Worlds. It was crazy. I wasn't really expected to win. I was kind of young and immature, and I still had braces! The other was when we won our first (NCAA) championship in my freshman year, just going through the battles with the team. To be in this new experience, and come out at the end of the year with a national championship and getting that (NCAA championship) ring, was the best feeling you could ever have.
IG: How much of an influence does your faith have in your gymnastics?
K: It's definitely a 90 percent faith game. Every meet I'm praying, "Just help me through this." All my routines are God's glory. He gives me the glory to do them, so why not do them to the best of my ability with His help? A couple of us on the team talk to each other about faith, even during the meet. We forget about it sometimes and we struggle, but I think that's what gives us those great moments of performance — when we struggle and still are content. Faith is huge, and without God, I would be nowhere right now! We have a Team United on campus, which is a Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action, together. We have weekly meetings with a lot of different sports teams, so it's great.
IG: How have you been able to maintain your fitness level from your international career, at age 22?
CK: I think I was a little out of shape last summer, because I completely stopped working out. It was kind of hard, but it was interesting. I'd never been like that before. You keep a balanced mentality. You eat normal food, and you have sweets, but you work out. I think it's about maintaining a balance. Some people are too picky, and think they shouldn't eat this or that, but I think if you maintain portions, you can eat anything.
IG: Based on your college training limit of 20 hours per week, and looking back on your elite training, do you still think it's necessary for a developing gymnast to train 40 hours per week?
CK: Getting to that point, you're learning new skills, and you need a lot of hours in the gym. But once you get those skills, you definitely don't need to be in there as long. Like Suzanne says, you can get in and get out if you hit that first routine. We want to hit those routines. We don't want to do more and fall on more. We want to do fewer and hit them.
IG: What do you think is the hardest thing for gymnasts to handle?
CK: There are two things that are the hardest about gymnastics: injury and fear. I've battled both of them. It's just how you get through them. If you believe you can get through an injury and fight back, and you really love gymnastics enough, you can get through it. With fear, you have to go back to the basics. Fear is incredible in gymnastics, because you're throwing yourself around on equipment and you have to land on your feet or you're going to hurt yourself. I think the fear is that you'll hurt yourself. Those two things are so hard in gymnastics. They're not fun at all, but if you can get through them, it makes everything worth it.
Courtney Kupets is featured in the following issues of International Gymnast magazine:
June 2007: NCAA Championships report
June 2006: NCAA Championships report
October 2004: Athens Olympic Games special issue
August/September 2004: U.S. Championships report, U.S. Olympic Trials report
August/September 2003: Kupets on cover photo collage, U.S. Championships report
February 2003: Kupets in center poster collage
January 2003: Kupets on cover photo collage, 2002 World Championships coverage
April 2002: Kupets on cover, Kupets profile, American Cup report
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