UGA's head Suzanne Yoculan (right) encourages Cassidy McComb half way through the competition. Jenni Girtman / AJC
Photo: Jenni Girtman / AJC
Photo: Jenni Girtman / AJC

Suzanne Yoculan Leebern returns to UGA gymnastics by taking a step back

When Suzanne Yoculan Leebern retired from the University of Georgia in 2009, she had led more collegiate gymnastics teams to national titles than any other program in the country. Almost a decade later, the former head coach is back. And she's finally found her balance as she makes time for family while still putting in hours at the training facility that bears her name. 

Lounging in a plush red armchair inside the head coach’s office, Yoculan Leebern seems at home. She doesn’t pay much attention to the trophies that line the shelves behind the desk, but occasionally glances at a large framed photo of the 2018 team hung on the wall. It’s clear that she’s spent many hours in the room, but the office doesn’t belong to her. As a volunteer assistant coach, her role is to support and advise her former gymnast Courtney Kupets-Carter, the program’s current head coach. 

When Yoculan Leebern stepped away from the program in 2009, she left behind a gymnastics juggernaut that boasted 10 NCAA championships (the last five of which were won consecutively) and turned her attention to caring for her ailing parents. For the first time in 26 years, she enjoyed the luxury of something she couldn’t afford while coaching: uninterrupted time with her family. 

“I always felt guilty and just a little bad about the time restraints in terms of my relationship with my family,” she said. “I know that’s why you don’t have that many very highly successful female head coaches. It just takes a certain level of dedication and time that is very difficult to balance with a family. Men, of course, have families as well, but it’s just sort of OK for dad to be gone for a week and not so OK for mom. When children are sick, they want their mom.” 

But from 1983 until 2009, mom couldn’t always be there, and Yoculan Leebern listed many milestones that passed while she was in the gym.

“I missed my daughter’s first prom. I missed her first dance. I missed her first date. I missed her first soccer game. I missed all her soccer games because they were Friday nights, and we had gym meets,” she recalled. “I missed all 21 of her birthdays because it was July 2, and recruiting starts July 1. That was the reasons for retiring.”

In retirement, Yoculan Leebern has remembered those reasons and made good on her promise to be present for everything her grandchildren do. But as years passed, she found she lost structure, longed for the community she formed at UGA and wasn’t feeling productive. Without any hobbies to fill her days — she never had time to pick up tennis or golf, didn’t study photography and doesn’t like digging in the dirt, so gardening is definitely out of the question — she found herself waking every morning wondering how to spend her newfound free time. 

So when Kupets-Carter came to her last year with an invitation to rejoin the staff in a role that required far fewer hours than head coaching demanded, the timing felt exactly right. 

While Yoculan Leebern confessed the years following 2009 were “miserable” for her from the viewpoint of a former head coach watching her dynasty slowly crumble, she kept her distance until her protégé asked for guidance. When Kupets-Carter was announced as the new face of Georgia gymnastics in May 2017, the two officially joined forces to revitalize the program by taking it back to its roots. 

The pair were a dream team on paper, with Yoculan Leeburn being the winningest collegiate gymnastics coach of all-time and Kupets-Carter being the most decorated collegiate gymnast ever, but the acclimation to their new positions didn’t click immediately. Kupets-Carter didn’t have any experience coaching at the collegiate level, and Yoculan Leeburn picked up where she left off, unsure of how to perform her role as a volunteer assistant. 

“In the beginning of the season, I remember (Kupets-Carter) talking at lineup one time, and I just jumped right in saying something,” Yoculan Leebern said. “She sort of gave me a look out of the corner of her eye, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I knew right then I was completely out of place.” 

As the season progressed, Yoculan Leeburn adapted to the new position but took on more responsibilities than she initially anticipated after the dismissal of a paid assistant in February left the GymDogs’ coaching staff short by one. Yoculan Leeburn temporarily filled the vacancy during the 2018 season and clocked around 30 hours a week — triple the amount she thought she’d spend in the gym this time around — but “enjoyed every minute of it.” 

With a new assistant coach hired for the coming season, Yoculan Leebern expects her responsibilities to shift from working with athletes to offering “day-to-day leadership” to Kupets-Carter. She predicted that soon “it will be less in the gym and maybe in more of an outside of the gym mentoring capacity.” 

Approaching her 28th year with the GymDogs, the former head coach is still learning how to incorporate gymnastics back into her life without sacrificing family time. In a sport where competitors and coaches reach the highest levels by being all-in at all times, Yoculan Leeburn reflects on her first tenure in Athens to remind herself that she accomplished everything she set out to do when she first took the head coaching job at 30 years old. 

“I have to remember that my needs as a coach were filled,” she said. “They were all fulfilled. I don’t have any more coaching needs, so I have to start focusing on (Kupets-Carter) and less on the team. I’ve just realized that from doing this for a year.”

In this new supportive role, Yoculan Leeburn is relieved of hyperfocusing on every minute detail and can instead spend her time taking trips with her husband (prominent UGA athletics booster Don Leeburn), trying out possible new hobbies with her children and keeping up with her grandchildren. 

But even as she takes a step back from committing every moment to gymnastics, the GymDogs are never too far from her thoughts. 

She already is assessing the 2019 season, considering how quickly the team can beat SEC powerhouse LSU, advance to the Super Six at nationals and return to its former glory. While win-loss records, qualifying scores and potential victories over conference foes are still up in the air, Yoculan Leebern is absolutely certain of one thing: no matter what position she holds on the coaching staff when Georgia claims its 11th national title with Kupets-Carter at the helm, it will feel like winning the first all over again.

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