By: Aimee M. Russo
SEC Digital Network
ATHENS, Ga. - One year after Title IX was signed into law, The University of Georgia gymnastics program would embark on one of the most successful journeys in Southeastern Conference history, marked by a slew of championship teams and All-American honors.
Over the past four decades, Georgia Gymnastics has reached what many programs can only dream. Earning 10 NCAA titles, including five straight between 2005 and 2009, the UGA Gym Dogs have set a standard of excellence that is second to none.
With a progressive start value, the UGA gymnastics program hit its stride with the hiring of legendary coach Suzanne Yoculan in 1983. An eight-time SEC Coach of the Year and a five-time national Coach of the Year, Yoculan cultivated a program that was able to rise to the top of the national rankings and establish itself in the NCAA and SEC record books.
Yoculan knew that the competition within the SEC would fuel program hopes for national esteem.
“Ernestine Weaver at the University of Florida, Sarah Patterson coming to the University of Alabama, and D-D Breaux at LSU were all there when I came to Georgia,” Yoculan said. “We already had three very competitive, very established, and very driven women that were a part of the rise of collegiate gymnastics in the SEC. There was that competition already beginning.”
To succeed in SEC gymnastics is no easy task. SEC teams consistently dominate the national gymnastics championships pool of contenders. Georgia’s 16 league titles equals that of all other teams in the conference combined.
The UGA Gym Dogs built a tradition like no other. Captivating victories have given the program a reputation that is able to continuously draw devoted fans and elite athletes to compete amongst the best of the best in the conference and across the nation.
Blessed with a dedicated following of screaming future-gymnasts and loyal Bulldog alumni, the Georgia gymnastics program has drawn sell-out crowds season after season. In fact, the Gym Dogs have a season average percent of capacity that ranks highest in the country.
“At the very beginning, I stepped into the coliseum and the meet was against Alabama and we had 200 fans,” said Yoculan. “I just walked around and said, ‘We’re going to fill this arena one day.’ Not long after, we established a permanent seat program for women’s gymnastics way before it’s time.”
As a way to reach out to the growing fanbase, Georgia became the first and only team at the time to have its own weekly TV show.
“Anything was possible,” Yoculan said. “The show was where we came up with our mantra, ‘No dream too big’. That was our philosophy at Georgia gymnastics. It’s representative of a lot of things, not just gymnastics itself, but also an athlete’s dream in academics or career wise or to overcome an injury. No dream to big was what we built our whole program on.”
Armed with a ‘no limits’ attitude, week in and week out, the Gym Dogs would compete against the toughest teams in the country. Slowly but surely and with a team mentality uniting them, Georgia gymnastics would become one of the premier dynasties in collegiate history.
“We paved the way with success,” Yoculan said. “It was hard work, grit, determination and expectations and a vision that was put in place that everyone grabbed a hold of that was a part of the program. From the secretary to the trainers to the coaches, it was a philosophy of team.”
The success would not come without its fair share of adversity. With obstacles in front of them, Georgia held onto their dreams and continued to overcome whatever barriers were between them and reaching the top of the medal stand.
“In 2007, we had two senior All-America all-around athletes in our lineup both get injured weeks before the national championship and although we were counted out, we won the national title,” said Yoculan. “In 2005, we came in ranked 12th, the lowest ranked team ever to win a national title. In 2008, Courntey Kupets, the number one athlete in the history of collegiate gymnastics, tore her Achilles during the season and we were still able to win a national title. It’s about the team. It’s not about one person. Our team completely, one-hundred percent believed in what we said and what we did. We all had the same vision of success.”
The program has been able to foster championship teams, but also an ever-growing list of individual title holders as well. From apparatus specialists to stellar all-around competitors, the Georgia Gym Dogs have won 40 individual NCAA titles by 18 different gymnasts.
In such a competitive gymnastics conference, it is difficult for individual gymnasts to stick out from the crowd. However, Georgia’s gymnasts have done just that, with a total of 17 SEC all-around champions, 20 vault titles, 27 bars titles, 15 beam titles, and 17 floor titles. Georgia has also had seven SEC Gymnast of the Year and eight SEC Freshman of the Year recipients.
Georgia has been able to time and again recruit elite national athletes that have represented the country at the highest level of competition. A total of eight Georgia Gym Dogs have competed in nine Olympic Games for three countries.
Not only has Georgia excelled in the arena, but they have also proven to be one of the top academic teams in the nation. A total of 77 gymnasts have made the SEC Academic Honor Roll 164 times. They were most recently cited by the NCAA as having one of the top ten multi-year academic progress rates in the country, a measurement of eligibility, retention and graduation.
The standards that have been placed on the Georgia gymnastics program are higher than most. With a new head coach at the helm, the Gym Dogs have their eye on the prize and a nation of supporting fans to push them to reach their potential.
“Georgia’s head coach Danna Durante is a visionary and very exciting to be around,” said Yoculan. “She knows no fear and you cannot win if you have any fear.”
While the UGA gymnastics program has and will likely again face adversity, its vision remains steadfast and strong.
No obstacle unmatched, no dream too big.