Kupets still learning to relax
It's in there somewhere. It has to be.
Behind a smile that's on par with Carrie Underwood's, behind that glaring Georgia logo stamped on her left cheek and behind the blaring techno beats of her floor routine, Courtney Kupets has a dark side. Maybe even a bit of a vulnerable side.
You wouldn't notice it, of course. Hardly anyone does. Kupets tucks it away, and all you get to see are her 11 all-around titles in 12 tries this season, as the SEC Gymnast of the Year makes a play to become the most decorated collegiate gymnast of all time.
Kupets is cut from the Kelly Kapowski cloth, defined as a bit of a goody-goody. And as some of her teammates say, the senior All-American can do no wrong.
"She's definitely the most positive person ever. It's hard to believe, but she is human," said her teammate and best friend, junior Courtney McCool. "She has weaknesses, dark days."
Away from the absurd crowds of more than 10,000 at Stegeman Coliseum, which fills faster for the top-ranked Gym Dogs than for the Bulldogs men's basketball team, and aside from the four perfect 10s she has recorded in her college career, Kupets occasionally gives up that grin.
It vanished about this time last year, shortly after she tore her right Achilles tendon in a March meet against Arkansas, ending her season. She had felt that pain once before, five years earlier when she tore her left Achilles, but still battled back to make the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.
But this was different. It wasn't only about her. She had teammates this time. They counted on her.
A couple of weeks following her injury, after she stood idly by and witnessed her team drop a meet at Michigan, Kupets crashed. Emotionally. Physically. Drained.
She arrived back at her Athens apartment late one night and struggled to jiggle the keys out of her pocket. "These damn crutches," she thought. "Why wouldn't they just go away and never come back?"
She eventually opened the door, maybe the only thing she was able to do correctly all day. She hadn't finished her homework and failed to get a paper to print at the library. She saw McCool, her roommate and fellow '04 Olympian, sitting on a bar stool at the counter.
And there it was. No competitors from Alabama, Florida or Utah witnessed it, but McCool saw it coming a mile away.
Kupets had a moment of vulnerability. One drop from her eye, then another, and soon a stream of tears that ran more fluidly than one of her tumbling passes. Pretty soon she collapsed into a chair, then onto the kitchen floor.
McCool joined her, encouraging her to let it all out. And Kupets did, for a few hours. Eventually, laughter broke through before they both fell asleep right there.
"All I do is go, go, go," Kupets said. "And sometimes it's too overwhelming. I can't do anything right. I'm OK, I just want to cry and get emotional. That's maybe just a day."
Or maybe not.
Kupets had more than a few of those days, understandably, while rehabbing her injury. It wasn't like back in '04 when she was still in the gym every day, working on her upper-body strength. She stayed away this time. Other than cheering for her team as it won a national title with her on the sideline, she never stepped foot in a gym.
Not for three months.
"Three months!" cried her coach, Suzanne Yoculan. "She's doing everything and anything but gymnastics."
Kupets had spent more than 40 hours a week training during her Elite career, about 20 the past few years at Georgia. When classes let out this past May, she would wake up to a quiet campus. Maybe she'd go outside and pop a squat nowhere in particular. And -- gasp! -- just relax.
"It was God's way of telling her she needed to rest," McCool said. "She was being hit with a lot."
In the summer she rested, read and hit the road with her friends to McCool's house outside Kansas City, Mo. By that time, her crutches were off and that smile was plastered back on, permanently. In all her years of competing, Kupets can't remember ever having enough time for an extended family vacation or living without a structured schedule. Without the pressure of a daily itinerary strapping her down, she persuaded everyone to hit the road at the sensible hour of 3 a.m.
"I just let go," she said.
For that summer, she was, maybe for the first time, acting like a real college kid. Back on her feet, she danced away those summer nights on the dock of a lake house. She transformed from an all-around champion to an all-around normal college student.
"I needed to spread my wings, be a little crazy," Kupets said. "It definitely was weird."
It might have been a little too weird, though, for Yoculan.
"[That] was a time where she wasn't really mentally motivated. We thought, 'Is the motivation for gymnastics still there?'" Yoculan said. "But that's what makes her so great. Courtney is totally in tune with what she needs. She knew she needed that summer off."
And when the seasons turned, Kupets turned it back on. She was just as dominant as ever.
"There was no doubt in any of our minds she'd be back," senior Tiffany Tolnay said. "She's as competitive as they come. From wanting to win a competition to wanting to be the first done at an Easter egg hunt, that's Courtney."
Yes, that's Courtney. She's the same young woman who still needs to remind herself to relax even in her fourth year of college. The same young woman who still gets reminded she's getting better and better even after 15 years on the mats.
She'll need her best, as will Georgia, to send Yoculan out a winner at nationals, which begin Saturday at six regional sites. The finals will be April 16-18 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Yoculan, the legendary coach, will call it quits after 26 years in Athens. The Gym Dogs, who lost for the first time all season at the SEC championship on March 21, will be going for their fifth straight NCAA title. And Yoculan wouldn't have any other gymnast leading the way.
"Combination, physically and mentally, the best I've ever had," Yoculan said of Kupets. "She moved over to college, and that's more mental and less physical. That's when she really got better and where she really has it over everyone else. That's when she goes into the next gear and leaves everyone in the dust."
OK, so maybe searching for Kupets' dark side isn't that challenging at all. It seems showcasing that smile after reclaiming her all-around title at nationals might just be her darkest moment yet. At least if you ask her competitors.
Sean Quinn is a contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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