April 8, 2010

 

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com


University of Georgia senior Courtney McCool was already one of the top gymnasts in the nation when the former Olympic medalist arrived on campus four years ago, and that hasn’t changed.  The difference is that now she has really learned what being a part of a team is about.

After earning a silver medal as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, McCool eventually made the journey to Athens, Ga., to begin her collegiate career.  She immediately contributed to the Gym Dogs’ successful run of NCAA titles, helping Georgia to its’ third straight championship as a freshman in 2007.  As a sophomore, McCool won the NCAA floor exercise title, and last season, she earned All-America honors on the balance beam.  

Always consistent in her gymnastics, McCool has developed in more intangible ways.

“I’ve watched her grow a tremendous amount in the last four years,” said head coach Jay Clark. “When she came in as a freshman, she wasn’t sure what to make of collegiate gymnastics after having been on the Elite scene and having been an Olympian.  She had been to the top of the mountain in our sport, and the whole team concept was very foreign.  We’ve watched her go from a quiet, reserved, almost stand-offish personality in the gym to being incredibly gregarious and vocal and embracing of the team concept.”

McCool points to two situations that changed her approach to gymnastics.  When she won the NCAA floor title and classmate Grace Taylor claimed the beam championship in 2008, teammate Courtney Kupets – sidelined with an injury – watched and cheered.  Following their brilliant performances, Kupets expressed to McCool and Taylor that she was happier for their success than she could be for herself.  

“When you’re happier for the person next to you is when you know you’re really living life,” said McCool.  “That moment really changed the way I looked at things a lot.”

The second situation was a lot longer than one moment.  As a junior, McCool spent the first 14 weeks of the season sitting out with an injury herself before getting a chance to compete in the final three meets of the regular season and in postseason action.  

“During those 14 weeks, I got to know my teammates in so many different ways when I got to step back and really see them in a different light and see what they needed in and outside the gym,” said McCool.  

“That was life-changing for me, and why this year, I could step into my role and really embrace it from the beginning.  I felt like I could pick my teammates up when they needed me.  It has helped me to be a leader in so many more ways than I could have been if I didn’t experience that.”

Georgia, although still one of the top teams in the nation, has its’ up and downs this season.  The Gym Dogs were slow to start, losing three of their first four meets and then halfway through the year talented freshman Shayla Worley went down with a season-ending injury.  Then, two weeks ago, there was a disappointing third-place finish at the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference Championships.

“It’s been a very long, rough, incredible journey all at the same time,” said McCool.  “We’ve had a very up and down season, and I think it’s the way we finish the meet.  We just haven’t hit our peak moment yet and gotten our timing right with everybody.  I’m super excited to get a do-over for SECs going into regionals in a comfortable environment.”

Clark says that McCool’s leadership has been instrumental in guiding the team through adversity this season.  

“She’s always led by example in her gymnastics and training habits, but this year, she has been very vocal and a driving force behind the spirit and fight of our team,” said head coach Jay Clark.  

McCool, who won the floor title at SEC Championships two weeks ago, is extremely excited about competing at the NCAA Regional in Columbia, Mo. – very close to her hometown of Lee’s Summit, Mo. – giving members of her extended family the chance to see her compete for the first time collegiately.

“I’m ecstatic,” said McCool.  “I’m beaming brighter than the sunlight.  When I was growing up we had competitions in Missouri, but not that much.  The last time I competed in Missouri was probably for a Level 9 state meet when I was about 13 years old.  Here we are about nine or 10 years later, and I get to do what I love with my whole family coming. They have been so supportive throughout my entire career that coming to the end of this chapter it is so special and an incredible blessing to experience one of my last meets with my entire family there.”

Georgia is the top-seeded team at the Columbia Regional that will be hosted by the University of Missouri on April 10.  Oregon State is the No. 2 seed, while Missouri is seeded third.  Minnesota, Iowa and North Carolina round out the six-team field.  The meet will start at 6 p.m. CT.  The top two teams will advance to NCAA Championships in Gainesville, Fla., on April 22-24.  Georgia has won five straight national titles.