Suzanne Yoculan reflects on her early years as Georgia’s gymnastics coach and laughs. She is best known today for her 10 national championships at UGA but she was known for a lot of other things when she started out in the mid-1980s.
“I used to throw shoes across the room,” Yoculan says incredulously. “I would take my shoe off and wing it across the room at a girl because I was mad at her for something. I’m not kidding. I learned a lot those first few years.”
Yoculan shared that experience to illustrate how much there is for young coaches to learn. Yoculan points out that her successor at Georgia, Jay Clark, is also a young coach and is having to learn on the job. For that reason, she said, fans need to be patient with him.
“He hasn’t taken his shoe off and thrown it across the room,” Yoculan quipped, “so already he’s doing better than I did.”
Clark, Yoculan’s lead assistant for 17 years, Clark took over as head coach three years ago. In that span, the Bulldogs had the gall not only to fail to win a national championship – they’d won five in a row before Yoculan stepped away – but they didn’t qualify for the NCAA Championships at all that first year.
But this year the Gym Dogs are back in the hunt. Georgia (17-5) is ranked No. 5 in the nation and is one of 12 teams that will be competing for the national title at the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth.
The Bulldogs are seeded fifth and will compete in the second semifinal session with six other teams Friday night at 6. Georgia, No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Alabama, No. 8 Arkansas, No. 9 Oregon State and No. 12 Ohio will compete for three of the six spots in Saturday’s national championship meet (4 p.m.). No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 6 Nebraska, No. 7 Utah, No. 10 Stanford and No. 11 LSU will compete in the first session at noon. The individual competition will be held on Sunday.
“We feel really good about our situation,” said Clark, whose third squad won the Auburn regional to advance to the championship meet. “We’re not going to out-difficulty anybody; we know that. We’re not going to do some of the crazy big skills you’ll see some of the other teams do. But we’re going to concentrate on being a super clean team. Hit every handstand; stick all our landings. Every year that’s what decides championships.”
Florida and UCLA are favored. Georgia has competed with seven of the other 11 teams in the field went 6-5 against them. The losses came against Florida, Alabama and Utah.
Georgia is led by senior Kat Ding, the reigning NCAA uneven bars champion and who is also ranked 15th in vault. Chelsea Davis (9th) and Gina Nuccio (16th) are nationally-ranked on bars, Shayla Worley is fourth on balance beam and 21st in all-around.
Yoculan, who led Georgia to the championship rounds in 23 of her 26 seasons, likes what she sees in the Gym Dogs.
“I feel confident that Georgia will compete for the national title,” said Yoculan, who will be part of ESPN’s television broadcast team. “There’s no doubt in my mind. I think there’s a strong shot Georgia will be in the Top 3, and that would be an unbelievable accomplishment for a new coach in his third season.”
It has taken a while for Yoculan to feel like she could speak freely about Georgia. Even though she announced her retirement two years before Clark was tabbed her successor, there was a period of awkwardness for both parties. That was particularly evident in Year One as Georgia stumbled through the transition and failed to advance out of regionals.
“Neither one of us were prepared for what hit,” Yoculan said. “He wasn’t prepared for a team that underperformed and I wasn’t prepared to not be part of the team. Georgia was struggling and people were stopping me and saying things to me and asking me what was wrong with the gymnastics team. It was awkward for me and it was hard for Jay.”
Though she remained an Athens resident, Yoculan steered clear of the practice gymnasium that was built in her name. She entered the building just once in 2010, and Clark resisted the urge to pick up the phone and call for advice when problems began to mount.
“When you’re with somebody that long, you think you know everything they would do in every circumstance,” Clark said. “That’s the mistake I made. And I also made the mistake of not being as in tune to the difficulties she was going through in the transition. I didn’t reach out as much as I probably should have.”
They’ve learned their lessons. Clark said he and Yoculan talk “almost daily” and Yoculan swings by the gym whenever she can. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Georgia is back in the championships a second straight year.
“We’re comfortable in our skin now,” Clark said.