Kupets carries 'whole package'

Courtney Kupets' near-perfect form on the balance beam and other events sets her apart. Says 1984 Olympic star Mary Lou Retton: "She's amazing."
To understand what makes Courtney Kupets the best women's gymnast in the country, you have to stop the action.

Look at photos of her on the uneven bars, the vault, even the 4-inch-wide balance beam. Upside down, right side up, somehow the two-time U.S. champion keeps her body as taut as an archer's bowstring.

"She's the best. So strong, so straight. Others are very good, but she's picture perfect - literally. Everything is a straight line," says Paul Ziert, the publisher of International Gymnast magazine and former coach of two-time Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner.

Look further. There's her dazzling smile, her poise, her ability to articulate her feelings.

"Courtney Kupets is phenomenal. She is the whole package. She has what I call the 'wow factor.' You watch and you go, 'Wow!' " says Mary Lou Retton, who won the all-around gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. "That's something that isn't taught. You either have that ability or you don't and she's got it. She's amazing."

Notice her versatility. She won the gold medal in uneven bars at the 2002 world championships. Her performance on the balance beam at the national championships this year threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the talented field. Her floor routine is fluid and powerful. Even in the vault - the toughest challenge for U.S. women - Kupets gets high marks.

"She does not have one weak event," Retton says. "She has all-around gold-medal potential. I'm looking for big things from her."

And don't forget Kupets' toughness. Just a year ago at the world championships, Kupets was a crumpled form on the floor exercise area, her coach and medical staff around her. While on her second tumbling pass in the preliminary round, she felt her left foot "bottom out" as she pushed off; it was limp when she landed.

"I knew I wouldn't be walking out," she recalls.

Diagnosis: a torn Achilles' tendon.

"She had one of the worst injuries a gymnast can suffer," says Elise Ray, a member of the 2000 Olympic squad and a former training partner at Hill's Gymnastics in Gaithersburg. "But it only made her better, tougher. Court was determined to come back."

That's not to say she was doing back flips overnight.

After surgery, she swam and did light exercises while waiting for her ankle to heal.

Kupets' personal coach, Kelli Hill, who also is head coach of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, says her most difficult challenge during rehabilitation was holding the teenager back.

"Court is my third gymnast going to my fourth Olympics, and holding her back has been a new experience for me," Hill says. "Intellectually, she understood the need to go slow, but emotionally, once she got in the gym, it was hard for her to keep from trying to do everything."

Kupets, 18, an honor roll student at Magruder High School in Rockville, did other things while waiting. She got her driver's license, something she admits she might not have had time for before the injury. Her mother, Patti, helped divert pent-up energy by letting her redecorate her room in bright stripes of pink, white, purple and blue.

Inside her family's tidy Gaithersburg townhouse, Kupets had a support network of fellow athletes. Her father played cornerback on the Indiana State football team. Her mother was a high school gymnast and college cheerleader. Brother Mark, 21, was a high school track and field athlete, winning the Virginia state championship in pole vaulting and competing twice at the Penn Relays. Ashley, 19, is a former national team member and a leader of the University of Georgia gymnastics squad. Chris, 16, plays varsity basketball.

The family has moved around and put a lot of miles on cars as Mark and Patti searched for good sports programs with high-level coaches. They lived in Texas, where Courtney was born, and called several places in Virginia home before finally settling in Gaithersburg when Patti discovered Hill's program.

Settled, but not sedentary.

It is rare to find all six Kupetses at home at the same time. If they are under the same roof, the agenda is most likely sleep. Their waking hours revolve around the refrigerator, where a plastic board lists activities and transportation needs.

"If you want something done, you put it on the white board," says Mark Kupets.

They can't remember taking a family vacation together, unless it was that trip almost 11 years ago to the Bahamas.

"That doesn't count. It was for a gymnastics meet," Ashley says.

Kupets is a self-professed shop-aholic, specializing in accessories, especially purses. She hits the malls while on the road and at home, sometimes with friends from the gym, sometimes with her mother, who advises: "Don't buy anything you don't love because you won't look great."

Since returning to competition, Kupets looks great in competition. She came back slowly in January, competing in two of four events at a regional meet and winning one. She won an international meet in May, repeated as all-around national championship in June and won the U.S. Olympic trials.

"She was frustrated and she was tired of being hurt," Retton says. "She wanted to get well so she could go out and get the attention that she deserved and that's exactly what she did. She has made a statement, 'I am here. Watch me.' "

Ray, who was Kupets' informal mentor at Hill's gym, says she could have predicted the comeback.

"Even when she was a junior, she had such a fire in her," Ray says. "She's so stubborn, and I mean that in the good way. She works so hard and when she wants something, she'll go get it."