COURTNEY KUPETS is making her first trip back to Hill's Gymnastics in Gaithersburg since the Olympics. She just finished signing autographs at the ESPN Zone restaurant in downtown DC after a private tour of the Capitol. She's in town only a few days; tomorrow she'll perform in the Tour of Gymnastics Champions at the MCI Center.
Her friends at Hill's--who are also classmates at Rockville's Magruder High School--are eating bag lunches at Hill's Gymnastics before their 2:30 practice. Kupets trains with them 35 hours a week. In August, they watched on TV as she won silver and bronze medals in Athens.
As the 18-year-old Kupets approaches, her teammates yell, "It's Courtneeey!" They jump up to hug her.
There's a lot to catch up on. Kupets hasn't been back to Magruder, where she's a senior, since school ended in June. Teachers send her assignments.
One girl tells Kupets her classmates are talking about who will ask her to homecoming. "Everyone's like, 'Courtney is so hot,' " a teammate says.
"Oh, my God!" another girl says in a valley-girl voice. "Courtney Kupets is sitting next to me!"
KUPETS DIDN'T didn't grow up dreaming about the Olympics. Her mother, Patti, didn't want Courtney and her older sister, Ashley, thinking that getting to the Olympics was all that mattered.
Patti had worked as a physical-education teacher, and she wanted her kids to have good balance and agility. The family had a beam and mini trampoline when Courtney was a baby. Patti enrolled her in gymnastics--Ashley had already started--at age three, after the family moved from Texas to Richmond.
When Courtney was five, her father, Mark, attached a bar to the deck so she could work on a kick. She and her siblings--brothers Mark and Chris took gymnastics until they were ten--turned a couch into a vault.
Kupets spent 12 hours a week in gymnastics classes and was competing when she was seven. When you're that young, she says, "there's no real pressure--you don't understand pressure."
When her father's job--he's a business developer for Innovex--transferred him to Fairfax, Kupets started training with Kelli Hill at Hill's Gymnastics. Hill also coached Silver Spring Olympian Dominique Dawes. The family moved to Gaithersburg a year later.
When she was 12, Kupets made it to the "elite" level; elite gymnasts compete nationally and internationally. She liked learning new skills, especially release moves on bars.
She sometimes wondered what it would be like to watch television after school. She's had the same schedule for three years: training from 7 to 9:30, an abbreviated school day from 10 to 2, more gymnastics until early evening.
On Sundays she rests and shops. Kupets, who has a purse to match almost every outfit and prefers bright leotards, spends an hour on hair and makeup before meets. "You just want to make sure it looks presentable," she says.
AFTER SHE became the 2002 world champion on the uneven bars, Kupets filled out a "goal list" for her coaches. She wrote about wanting to do her best, but she didn't mention the Olympics. They told her it was time to start thinking bigger.
At the world championships in 2003, she tore her Achilles tendon. She had been hurt before and had watched Ashley, also an elite gymnast, come back from four ankle injuries.
When she came home from the hospital, she redecorated her bedroom. "No more disappointment allowed," she told herself. Soon she was swimming and biking.
Ten months after the injury, Kupets tied Carly Patterson--now the all-around gold medalist--for first placeat the national championships. It was Kupets's second national title.
Before Kupets had secured a spot on the Olympic team--she still had the trials ahead of her--her principal at Magruder put up a sign: CONGRATULATIONS ON THE OLYMPICS. Kupets asked him to take it down. "It was the Olympic trials," she says. "Big difference."
In Athens, Kupets blocked out the crowd and tried to ignore the hamstring bothering her since training camp. She helped her team win silver but had to forfeit her turn on the beam because she was in too much pain. She then won bronze on the uneven bars; the event puts less stress on her legs.
Kupets isn't thinking about Beijing in 2008. She's thinking about the University of Georgia, where she'll be a freshman next fall--Ashley goes there, too. She hasn't decided if she'll compete outside of college.
"I know I'll be in college for four years," says Kupets, who's considering a fashion career. After that, "anything can happen."
Courtney Kupets has competed hard since she was seven. At that age, she says, "there's no real pressure--you don't understand pressure."