Losing Courtney Kupets didn't mean kaput for Georgia's gymnastics dynasty.
The Gym Dogs won their fourth consecutive NCAA gymnastics title Friday in Athens, but in some ways this was their most impressive accomplishment in the streak.
"I can't say enough about this team," Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan said. "They just get it. They know what it takes to win at the highest level and under extreme pressure."
A lesser team's season would have come to an end on March 1 when its unequivocal star gymnast ruptured her Achilles tendon. Kupets is an Olympic medalist and two-time NCAA all-around champion, so registering 9.9-something in whatever event she performed was almost as automatic as drawing fast cash out of an ATM. You simply can't replace someone like that.
Yoculan wasn't about to let that setback destroy what she'd spent 25 years building into the premiere dynasty in collegiate gymnastics.
"It's not like I felt, 'Oh my god, Courtney's out. We can't have the same goals. We can't win a championship,' " Yoculan said. "I have never felt that. It was more a disappointment for her personally. I hate it when somebody's opportunity is taken away from them for something they can't control, especially an athlete who was on her way to becoming the most decorated collegiate athlete ever. I felt like her mom and was so, so disappointed for her.
"But our team is never centered around one person. Her adversity became another person's opportunity. They were all ready to step up and make a difference."
More easily said than done. To put Kupets' loss in terms the average Bulldog sports fan might comprehend, compare it to football. Let's say Georgia is ranked No. 1 and before its annual showdown with Florida, quarterback Matthew Stafford blows out his knee. It would be a major setback, but a backup could come in and perform within his means and let other offensive stars such as Knowshon Moreno or the defense pick up the burden.
That's not the same in gymnastics. Somebody else doesn't suddenly become Olympic caliber and start posting 9.975 in the vault (as Kupets did the day she got injured).
"It will be harder, obviously, because she'd get a 9.9 or 10 in every event," said Grace Taylor, the Aiken sophomore who helped the team step up. "Anybody who has to replace that spot is not going to do that because she's Courtney Kupets."
Winning that fourth consecutive title certainly seemed out of reach the week after Kupets was injured, when the Gym Dogs lost at Michigan for the first time since the season opener. It was the only time all season when Kupets wasn't at least present.
"It's not so much her scores as just her," said Taylor. "It's her attitude and her presence. The meet she wasn't there in Michigan we felt an empty spot. And then we came back and she's there and her scores aren't counting, but just her being there makes the difference. Because she is there and doing the routine with each person and again the example of focusing power on what we're supposed to do and that ingredient of team."
That's how Georgia restructured its team dynasty. Yoculan concentrated her frenetic energy into lifting the rest of her gymnasts to the same goals that have always applied to Georgia.
"We've always been out there to win and that doesn't change," she said before the postseason started. "It took away our cushion. That's a reality. But that doesn't change focus. It just intensified it. In a lot of ways, it brought a lot of other people's games up a level. There was definitely a period of time where we had to refocus and get that fight back."
Taylor, a psychology major, saw the recovery as something right out of her class texts involving the phases of grief.
"First sadness, then rage then figuring out a plan," Taylor said. "I have a lot of confidence in this team that we can win without Courtney's scores. I was upset for her because she could so easily win again and again and again. I wanted it to be her. She's the ultimate example of humility when greatness is thrust upon her and she absorbs it like it's nothing.
"But there's no reason for it to stop. I mean, we haven't changed. This year is not different than any other year when the team gets together and fights for something and puts Georgia gymnastics in front of any fears or indifference of their own."
Georgia did that. Everybody had to perform incrementally better to garner those fractions of points that determine success and failure. They won the SEC title last month, the NCAA regional two weeks ago and captured their fourth consecutive and ninth career NCAA championship on Friday in front of a soldout crowd at home.
Eight different Gym Dogs earned All-America honors, with Taylor earning first team in balance beam and uneven bars and second team in floor exercise. Yoculan, who will retire after next season, has Georgia tied with Utah for most career national titles.
"It was a storybook ending ... a fairy tale and a dream come true," said senior Audrey Bowers. "To win four in a row is amazing, but this year we couldn't have asked for anything more. Our team fought to the end. No one gave up. This group is all about the team."
With Kupets back next year, there might not be an end to the story just yet.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.