Courtney Kupets should have felt sorry for herself.
She should have slammed her fist against a table like her coach did, or started to cry like her mom. Or maybe she should have followed the lead of a few other gymnasts, who knelt down to the mat and silently prayed.
But Kupets did none of that when she tore her left Achilles' tendon at the world championships in Anaheim, Calif., on Aug. 19, 2003, ending her gymnastics season and casting doubt over her entire career. Instead, she surveyed the dismayed faces around her, forced a smile and said: "I'm going to get through this. I'm going to come back and be okay."
She's made believers out of all of them now, even the doctors who told her that a full recovery might take more than a year. In the 10 months since her injury, Kupets has not only recovered but improved. She tied for first at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on June 5, revamped her floor routine to make it more exciting and all but ensured one of six spots on the women's gymnastics team that will compete at the Olympic Games in Athens in August.
"From Day One, I just believed," said Kupets, 17, of Gaithersburg. "I'd worked too hard to let an injury destroy me. I just made up my mind to get better and come back as fast as I could."
She began fulfilling that vow minutes after she injured the Achilles' tendon while practicing her floor routine. Immediately, she knew the injury was serious. Pain kept her from getting up to walk or even moving her foot.
Friends advised Kupets to relax for a few days. Stay in Anaheim, they said, so that you can come up to the medal stand with us and get your gold medal. Kupets would have none of it. She didn't want a medal; she wanted to get home and into a hospital for surgery.
"Everybody there was kind of grieving," said Bob Colarossi, president of U.S. Gymnastics. "But right away, Courtney's focus was on recovering quickly, in time for the Olympics. She was two steps ahead of us."
Not until the next day, when Kupets watched her team receive gold medals on a television in the airport, did the tears finally come. She cried out of frustration, not sadness. Ten years of competitive gymnastics resume-stacking -- a world uneven bars championship in 2002, a U.S. individual national title in 2003 -- had taught Kupets to overcome pain, to deal with it.
Now she would have to succumb to it.
"The hardest part was just knowing I wouldn't be the same type of athlete for a while, during the rehab," Kupets said. "I just couldn't even imagine not having my mobility, even for a little while."
Kupets went in for her surgery in Rockville, less than a week after her injury. The surgeon, Daniel Lahr, told her she would need to be patient. "Even the world's best athletes ideally recover from an Achilles' injury in a year," Lahr said. "You'll have to push your body to the ultimate limit."
No problem. During the first three months after the surgery, Kupets woke up at 5 a.m. most mornings to work out. Even though she couldn't walk, she went to her gym -- Hill's Gymnastics in Gaithersburg -- to lift weights and swing on the bars. She went swimming to stay in shape. She helped coach other gymnasts to stay sharp.
Rehabilitation became hard only when Kupets wanted to do more. Worried that Kupets might be working too much, Kelli Hill, her coach, sometimes told her to slow down. "I had to hold her back," Hill said. "She wanted to walk too soon, she wanted to run too soon, she wanted to do her floor routine too soon."
"She always wanted to get better before the Olympics," said Jennifer Iovino, who works out at Hill's Gymnastics and goes to school with Kupets at Magruder High. "When she worked out, you'd see her cry and cry just out of pure determination. It was tough to watch."
Three months after the surgery, Kupets finally ditched her crutches. By five months, she'd brainstormed with Hill to create a new floor routine. The old one, Kupets said, seemed too simple. She wanted a routine with faster music, more dancing and more difficult choreography.
At seven months, when Lahr expected Kupets to begin enjoying "medium" mobility, Kupets competed again. She went to a training program in Houston at Bela and Martha Karolyi's ranch, passed a physical ability test and wowed with her uneven bars and beam routines.
On June 6, Kupets performed all four routines (uneven bars, beam, floor and vault) at the U.S. national championships in Nashville, the same event she won in 2003. She went into the championships hoping to stay healthy, hoping to survive.
She tied for first.
"I never thought that could happen," Kupets said. "It was never even my goal. It would have been too unrealistic to be a goal. It all seemed too good to be true."
"It was just the most emotional weekend," said Patti Kupets, Courtney's mom. "We never even knew if she'd be healthy, but there she was, showing the whole world how strong she was, even stronger than she'd been before."
While Kupets's performance didn't lock her spot on the 2004 Olympic team, it made her a heavy front-runner to be selected. Kupets will compete with 12 other gymnasts at the Olympic trials in Anaheim, which begin Thursday. From there, she'll likely go to a two-day competition with about 10 gymnasts at the Karolyi ranch, where Martha Karolyi, coach of the women's Olympic team, will select her final group.
"Courtney certainly has as good a chance as any, and she's got a better chance than most," said Colarossi, the president of U.S. Gymnastics. "She's separated herself from the field. It's amazing that she's healthy enough to even have a chance."
A six-inch scar on the inside of Kupets's heel is the only physical remnant of her injury. She's eager to get rid of it, even though it may never go away. Every few days, she gets treatment aimed at reducing the scar.
"I hate looking at it, because its really the only time I think about my Achilles'," Kupets said. "Otherwise, I've basically put everything behind me. I always knew I'd get better. I expected to come back 100 percent."