- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Courtney Kupets isn’t quite perfect.

Kupets and a friend recently went to the movies to see “The Terminal,” and afterward they sneaked into another theater to catch the end of “Dodgeball.”

Beyond that, anyone would be hard-pressed to find something the 17-year-old, Olympics-bound gymnast from Gaithersburg doesn’t do right.

She helps her gym mates put away equipment after practice, even though she has finished four hours of training and still has an interview with Sports Illustrated to get through.

She cheers for her U.S. teammates at meets, even though they are the gymnasts most likely to beat her at the Athens Games.

She graciously signs autographs for fans, even though a little girl at last month’s Olympic trials interrupted her during the most important meet of her life.

She tied for first place at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships the first week of June — her second straight national title — and won the Olympic trials three weeks later.

She’s a straight-A student at Magruder High School in Rockville.

According to her father, Mark, she has never been grounded.

“I can’t remember anything she’s ever done to get in trouble,” he says. “Courtney is just laid- back. She doesn’t give you any trouble at all.”

Kupets is a favorite, along with teammates Carly Patterson and Courtney McCool, to win a gold medal in several events in the Athens Games, which begin Aug. 13. She counts the days until the July 18 selection of the U.S. Olympic team — just a formality for her at this point — and keeps busy with normal teenager stuff.

She calls herself a “big shopping person” and likes working on her tan at the pool. Her homework, which she does after a 12-hour day of training and attending public school, takes longer than normal because she loves watching television.

After she won a gold medal on uneven bars at the 2002 world championships, she told NBC commentator Tim Daggett that she wasn’t sure which was more exciting, winning the event or finally having her braces taken off.

She chooses to squeeze public schooling into a jampacked schedule rather than be home-schooled like other elite gymnasts.

Doug Hanratty, Kupets’ Latin teacher of two years, says the gymnast is one of the best students he has had in 35 years of teaching.

“I love having her in class. She is so positive,” Mr. Hanratty says. “You have to understand how difficult it is [for her]. She knows what she has to do, and she gets it done. I’m impressed by her.”

Kupets tore an Achilles tendon halfway through the 2003 world championships, a career-threatening injury, and came to school in a cast at the beginning of the year. Mr. Hanratty says he never saw the worry on her face.

Maybe that’s because Kupets generally makes lemonade out of lemons.

“I was sad for, like, the first 15 minutes,” she says. “I just said, ‘I’ll stay with it and try to be patient.’ I was pretty confident that I’d be back.”

Since the injury kept her from gymnastics temporarily, she used the time to work on something else — like earning her driver’s license.

Although she failed the permit test on her first try — she swears there were trick questions — her road test was no problem. In typical fashion, she was just thankful the injury happened to her left leg and not the right leg she would need to operate the gas and brake pedals.

Her Achilles tendon healed in plenty of time for her to attend the prom a few weeks ago at a nearby high school with a group of friends.

“They had more guys than girls, so they were like, ‘Come on, Courtney, you should come,’ ” she says.

Some lucky guy ended up with a date who is about to become one of the most recognizable faces of the summer.

Until then, Kupets continues to train at Hill’s Gymnastics in Gaithersburg. Her family moved to Gaithersburg from Richmond eight years ago, in part because they did not live near a gym that trained elite gymnasts. At the time, Kupets’ older sister, Ashley, also was an elite.

“If they could make it, we wanted to find out if they could make it,” Mr. Kupets says. “If they didn’t make it, at least we tried. I didn’t want to sit in Richmond and say, ‘What if we had moved?’ ”

The decision turned out to be a good one. Kelli Hill coached the U.S. women’s team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and lifted Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, a three-time Olympian, to gymnastics stardom. Hill has been working with Kupets since the family moved.

“I think we knew from the beginning when she first came to the gym that she was extremely talented,” Hill says. “She obviously has very good talent. But her biggest asset is that she is so tough mentally.”

It’s difficult to pick Kupets out of the crowd at her training sessions at Hill’s. At a recent afternoon practice, about 80 other young gymnasts fill the small gym, all running, tumbling, jumping, dancing and falling into foam pits.

Parents watch from a separate room. Some children are so small they look like they are preparing for the long jump when they take off from the low bar to the high bar. Some are so young, they are unfazed by the fact that their underwear is hanging out of their leotards. As parents watch their children, some try to figure out which one is Kupets.

“She’s over there, in the red, I think,” one says.

In a few weeks, they will have no problem spotting her.

Kupets, who will turn 18 on July 27, already has proved herself to be the best gymnast in the country, and now she has a realistic shot at being the best in the world. Her toughest competition for the all-around title in Athens is likely to come from Americans Patterson and McCool.

Not that Kupets would dream of holding it against them.

“They’re like my best friends, basically, even though they live so far away,” she says. “When we get together, we just have so much fun. You want them to do their best because you know they’ve worked so hard.

“There is a little bit of pressure, because you are competing against them, but it just makes it a little bit easier to cheer with them and help them get better, because they do the same for you, and it helps you as well.”

After the Olympics, Kupets is considering a move to another Athens: the University of Georgia, where big sister Ashley was the No.1 recruit last year and just finished her freshman year. Courtney also is considering Stanford and UCLA.

“I’ll be a senior next year, so this is the year they start talking to you and figuring out trips to go places,” she says. “I did OK [on the SATs]. For Stanford, I might have to try one more time.”

No matter where she goes, there will still be gymnastics meets for the family to watch, which means more expense for her parents.

Mr. Kupets isn’t sure exactly how much the family spends on gymnastics, but he knows it costs thousands of dollars a year, and the number will be higher for 2004. In addition to the Olympic trials and the games themselves, Mr. Kupets’ wife, Patti, traveled to California to see Ashley compete in the NCAA championships.

They haven’t taken a real family vacation in years. Mr. Kupets’ sister bought a beach house four years ago, and they still haven’t found time to get there for more than a day trip. He says they took a “so-called” vacation a few years ago to California to watch Kupets compete.

“The whole family went, so it felt like a vacation,” he says.

It may all feel worth it when Kupets competes in Athens next month, although they have never considered all the hard work to be for this one competition. Kupets didn’t even consider herself good enough for the games until she won her individual gold medal at the 2002 world championships. Before that, she called making an Olympic team “far-fetched.”

“It’s the Olympics. It’s everyone’s dream. I didn’t want to put that too high in my list,” she said.

It may be everyone’s dream, but it comes true for only a select few. And Kupets just happens to be one of them.

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