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Olympic medalist Courtney Kupets joins sister on Gym Dogs

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Athens --- As one of the 2004 Olympians honored during the recent national championships in Indianapolis, gymnast Courtney Kupets yearned to be somewhere else.

Athens, Greece, was then; Athens, Ga., is now.

"I was disappointed because I couldn't be down with the girls moving in at the same time," said Kupets, whose mother subbed for her at the dorm. "I'm just so excited for this experience in college. It's like a chance in a lifetime."

Kupets, 19, understands that there's more to gymnastics than Olympic medals, even if you're fortunate enough to win a couple of them.

Her Olympic aspirations suffered a major blow when she tore her Achilles tendon during the 2003 World Championships in Anaheim, Calif. Kupets rehabbed the injury in time to win the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials, then was part of the silver-medal American team at the Games. Despite a strained adductor muscle, she also won an individual bronze on uneven bars, was fifth on beam and ninth all-around.

Now Kupets is healthy and among a strong crop of freshmen hoping to help Georgia's Gym Dogs repeat as national champions.

"What she brings to the team, besides energy, enthusiasm and a full-of-life personality, is her experience --- under pressure, with fans, with crowds, and on a team," said Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan.

After performing with the hopes of the country on her shoulders, Kupets should be able to cope with the expectations placed on her by her own teammates, Yoculan said.

Georgia gymnastics, Yoculan said, "is "going to be better than it's ever been in Athens. The fans are going to go nuts, it's going to be so good."

Not only is Kupets joining her sister, Ashley, a Gym Dogs junior, but their parents and younger brother have relocated from Gaithersburg, Md., to Athens.

Ashley said she and Courtney were inseparable growing up and never fought.

"Now she's got a ton of sisters --- a ton," Ashley said of Georgia's tight-knit team. "It's really exciting to have someone at her level --- which is great --- but I'm also excited for her to come and join this whole family, for her to experience the chemistry that we have. It's going to be so different for her, but she's going to love it."

After Ashley broke her nose last year in an uneven bars accident, she wound up looking more like Courtney.

"People mistake us for twins, and I'm like, 'Are you serious?' " said Ashley.

Kupets figures she'll be as recognizable as Ashley's little sister on the Georgia campus --- where about 10,000 people attend Gym Dogs home meets --- as she is as a double Olympic medalist.

"Most people who watched the Olympics don't really remember the people, so I definitely won't just come out and say it," Kupets said. "So if they remember and ask me, I'll say, 'Yeah, that was me.' Otherwise, that was last year, this is a whole new year."

Red and black leotards have replaced red, white and blue. In college, gymnasts train less (from about 50 hours a week to a maximum of 20), compete more (15-16 weekends in a row compared to three or four big meets a year) and are able to dial down their difficulty when they're of Kupets' caliber.

Most routines have a maximum 10.0 start value with deductions taken for mistakes.

"She's probably got an 11.0 start value," said Georgia assistant coach Doug McAvinn. "The good thing about it is if she wants to continue pursuing international competition, she's already got the bag of skills."

But Kupets, who won the 2002 world championship on uneven bars, isn't looking past the collegiate season.

"I'm going to keep some of my skills that I really liked, but I'll definitely take some away just because they're not necessary," she said. "I'll keep my routines fun and exciting."

She'll also have time to concentrate on her schoolwork, with interior design as a possible major, and social pursuits such as rushing a sorority.

"We tell all the girls we want them to have a full life," Yoculan said. "They can do that and still win championships."

Yoculan said Kupets won't win all the time once the Gym Dogs open their season in Cancun, Mexico, in early January.

"It doesn't matter that she may be doing harder skills because now it comes down to execution and sticking," she said. "There'll be many times that her sister or Kelsey Ericksen or Tiffany Tolnay [another incoming freshman] will beat Courtney because Courtney will take a step and they won't."

But Kupets' most noticeable step has been from Olympic to collegiate gymnastics.

Ashley said her best sisterly advice is "just to embrace everything. This is an incredible place to be --- for college, but also for gymnastics. I just want her to enjoy every minute of it."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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