Patti Kupets swears that many students at Magruder High in Rockville, Md., have no idea what her daughter, Courtney, a senior-to-be with a 4.0 GPA, does in her spare time. "She likes it that way," says Patti.
By next semester Courtney's off-campus hobby will be a secret no longer. After winning the Olympic trials in June, Kupets, 18, heads a group of six competitors charged with bringing Olympic glory back to U.S. gymnastics. The squad has been chosen specifically to recapture the team gold won by the U.S. in '96. (American gymnasts went medalless in 2000.) Kupets and two teammates, 16-year-olds Courtney McCool and Carly Patterson, also have the potential to win the U.S.'s first all-around gold medal since Mary Lou Retton in 1984.
"The depth on this team is much better than we've had," says national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who picked the squad that won last year's world title. Kupets [coo-PETS], the 2002 uneven bars world champ, missed that team win when she ruptured her left Achilles on the eve of the finals. After surgery she started a swift recovery aided by a physical therapist, a psychologist, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. While Kupets healed, she stretched, swam, rode a stationary bike and honed details of form, such as her toe point. "She couldn't have tolerated being out of the gym," says her coach, Kelli Hill. "We had to hold her back from doing too much."
Known for her high-wattage routines and bright smile, Kupets has come back better than ever. In May she won the all-around at an international meet in Texas, and in June she defended her national all-around title, tying with Patterson. Until the trials, Patterson—runner-up in the all-around at the 2003 worlds despite a fractured left elbow-had received more attention than Kupets and had been anointed as the U.S. superstar-to-be. ( Karolyi's husband, the famous ex-coach Bela, has called her one of the three most talented American gymnasts he's ever seen.) At the trials, the normally poised Patterson fell off the beam twice, but she's not worried. "I know the mistakes I made, and I'm fixing them," she says.
With Kupets, Patterson and McCool, who finished just .125 behind Kupets at the trials, this squad could become the best U.S. team ever. And become the talk of the schoolyard.