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Not feeling torn up by injury
GAITHERSBURG - The line between elation and despair is a rust-colored scar, the length and width of a ballpoint pen, that runs from Courtney Kupets' heel to her calf.
In June, Kupets was on top as the 2003 U.S. all-around women's gymnastics champion. Now, the 17-year-old is pushing herself through the grind of rehabilitation, trying to prepare for the U.S. championships and Olympic trials in June.
"I have plenty of time from my point of view," says Kupets, who sandwiches a full day of classes at Gaithersburg High School between grueling exercise and physical therapy sessions.
Kupets' carefully charted course to the Athens Olympics was derailed on the eve of the team finals at the world championships in August. While practicing her floor routine, Kupets tore an Achilles' tendon.
"She did her first pass and turned to make her second. It snapped on takeoff," says Kelli Hill, her personal coach and U.S. women's team coach. "I knew right away."
Gymnastics insiders called the accident to one of the team's most versatile and consistent athletes "disastrous" and "devastating," with USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi predicting it would take Kupets a minimum of seven months to recover.
Hill agrees: "It's not career-ending, but after a head or neck injury, it's as close to career-ending as you can get."
There had been warnings. Kupets complained of tenderness two days earlier. But a magnetic resonance imaging test read by three doctors found nothing alarming, and the team physician cleared her for competition.
Through the vault, the uneven bars - on which Kupets was the reigning world champion - and the balance beam, things seemed fine. She was on her final event of the all-around program when the tendon gave out.
On the drive to the hospital, Kupets cried. Team officials insisted she return to Maryland immediately for surgery. The trip home from Anaheim, Calif., with her mother, Patti, took forever. First, she sat on the runway for four hours, her foot encased in ice, then had an overnight stay in Chicago when they missed their connection.
With Kupets and teammates Ashley Postell and Annia Hatch sick or injured during the competition, the team went to what Colarossi called "Plan E."
The reworked roster took the team gold medal, with Carly Patterson, Tasha Schwikert, Hollie Vise, Chellsie Memmel, Terin Humphrey the picture of triumph, holding aloft yellow and blue flowers tied with a golden ribbon.
Kupets learned the good news when her father reached her and her mother by phone.
"I was happy for them because they worked so hard, but I was kind of sad that I couldn't be there to see it," she says.
Hill now regrets Kupets' swift departure. "I kicked myself for not keeping her at worlds. She worked hard to get there. What difference would one day have made?" she says. "When the kids were on the podium and she wasn't, I wanted to laugh and cry. I still have trouble looking at the pictures."
Back to work
Three days after surgery, doctors removed the splint and she began exercising. She wore a protective boot and hobbled around on crutches for a month, then she was liberated from them.
"I had a limp for a long time," she says. "Pity? Right in the beginning. But if you keep being mad, it takes longer to get well."
Her mother kept her busy by letting her paint her room - wide horizontal stripes of pink, white, purple and blue. The down time also enabled Kupets to get her driver's license.
"The injury was my left foot, and I drive with my right," says Kupets, grinning.
But despite the distractions, Kupets still faced the deadly dull routine of rehabilitation.
"It's hard at 6 in the morning when we're driving to therapy," acknowledges her father, Mark Kupets. "I'm sitting there thinking, `Why doesn't she complain ... why doesn't she say, "I've had enough"?' She doesn't."
Kupets has faced adversity before. She went to the 2002 world championships in Hungary with a stress fracture in her big toe. After reviewing her options - the worst that could happen was a clean break that would end her chances - Kupets decided to compete.
When she fell off the beam, the questions started.
"I'm outside running and talking to God, wondering what it's all about," says Mark Kupets. "Then a voice told me, `Because she's going to win the bars.' "
And Courtney Kupets did, capturing the U.S. team's first gold medal by defeating five-time world champion Svetlana Khorkina, who fell twice.
In June, she won the U.S. all-around title by the slimmest of margins to join Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring and Elise Ray (Wilde Lake) as the third Hill-trained gymnast to hold the top honor.
"She's tough," Hill says. "She's not a fearful kid. She has great coordination and awareness. While she's flipping and tumbling, she can feel what's wrong and make a correction."
Hill says she hopes to enter Kupets in competitions in January and February, starting with bars, then adding the beam, vault and floor exercise.
"She's slowly bringing her skills back to the competition level," Hill says. "She got a better than 50-50 shot [at the Olympics]. The Achilles' is holding strong. If everything stays the same, she'll make it."
Making her comeback even more difficult is that Kupets will have to climb past women who ably filled in at the worlds. Six gymnasts and two alternates will be chosen to go to Greece.
"It's going to be close," USA gymnastics spokesman Brian Eaton says. "She's still got until June. In some sports, that's a long time, but in gymnastics some of the athletes already will have competed for months."
With a massive American flag looming behind her, the tiny gymnast practices a series of precise pirouettes and powerful jumps on the balance beam over and over again, her face a mask of intense concentration.
Afterward, she carefully lowers herself from the beam to the floor and stretches her lower legs.
"The hard part is getting up early to actually do it," Kupets says of her six-day-a-week training regimen. "I take it week to week. I'll be ready. I'm not going to have any more setbacks."