In the 1990s and 2000s, the University of Georgia established itself as the most dominant force in college gymnastics. The Gym Dogs have tallied the most team and individual national championships in NCAA history, producing a litany of All-Americans and Olympians throughout their 30-plus year run of success.
One of key contributors during the early days of that run was Karin Lichey-Usry, a heralded gymnast who was part of two national championship teams in the late 1990s. During her freshman season of 1995-1996, Lichey-Usry achieved what no other gymnast had done before – registering four perfect scores of 10 in a single competition.
Building a dynasty for the whole community
Understandably, one might not expect college gymnastics to drive sellout crowds and capture the attention of an entire community. However, the hiring of Suzanne Yoculan as Georgia’s head coach put the team on the pathway to unparalleled success that ultimately reshaped the sport’s landscape.
Yoculan recognized that college gymnastics could not only be something that brought families together, but also provided an opportunity for young gymnasts who, until the 1990s, didn’t have as many options for continued success in front of them.
DR. LEAH BROWN, Georgia gymnast 1994-1997: Gymnastics was a unique sport where, at the time, there was not a lot of exposure. You were a gymnast and nothing else. You might have been a student, at best, but you were a gymnast all the time. If you made it to college gymnastics before what it is now was kind of like getting to where gymnasts go to retire.
JULIE BALLARD CLARK, Georgia gymnast 1995-1998: I could tell (Suzanne Yoculan) had really set high expectations for the program. She was literally doing everything she could to grow the program in every area and grow its community.
KARIN LICHEY-USRY, Georgia gymnast 1996-1999: (The meet atmosphere) was probably one of the things that drew me to Georgia. Just everything about the program and school was top notch. Suzanne had done such a wonderful job building the program and getting people in the stands.
BROWN: There were three primary programs at the time – Utah, Alabama and Georgia. And the programs like UCLA and Florida were able to jump in later and then parity happened.
C. TRENT ROSECRANS, Gym Dogs beat writer at The Red & Black: Suzanne and (Alabama head coach) Sarah Patterson were so, so smart. I still don’t know if they hated each other or just worked well together. They were brilliant. They made it. That Georgia-Alabama rivalry was unbelievable. People outside those two places don’t get it.
BALLARD CLARK: One of the biggest things that helped us as athletes was getting into the community and getting their support, so when we went to a competition we were performing for thousands of people and not just going to a competition and performing for our mom and dad like we did in club gymnastics.
LICHEY-USRY: I remember as a freshman, as well as the rest of my time on the team, we worked hard to get people in the stands. We went to festivals. We went to school workshops. We were mentors. We put posters in every single place in downtown Athens. We were out and about in the community trying to get people there and to fall in love with gymnastics.
ERIN KENDALL, Gym Dogs fan: Coach Yoculan made it almost like a circus. They had an announcer who had the big voice. They had the cheerleaders there. They had music.
LICHEY-USRY: Once you get someone to come to a gymnastics meet, they’re hooked because it is a production. Suzanne did a good job making sure it was a production, and that it was family friendly.
BALLARD CLARK: (Yoculan) said ‘I want to fill this arena up,’ and we were pumped to be a part of building that with her.
BROWN: (Yoculan) had a vision of creating an environment where college gymnastics was given the same respect that other sports were. There wasn’t much known about what gymnastics was. It was a little bit of ballet, maybe it was a little bit of cheerleading and people did some flips and that was it. I feel like she created a product and marketed it well, in addition to developing these teenage girls into young women at a time in their life that is so critical.
KENDALL: It wasn’t like ‘wow, look at all these people showing up for women’s athletics’ it was ‘of course these people are showing up for women’s athletics because this is awesome.’ That’s a cool way to build self-confidence for girls. It’s not a ‘despite’ but rather an ‘of course.’
ROSECRANS: At The Red & Black, the men’s and women’s basketball games were technically bigger, more prestigious beats, but there was something about the Gym Dogs that made it feel bigger. It was like NCAA Basketball Tournament level intensity every week.
BROWN: When (Yoculan) saw that these athletes were getting better, there was a market for it, and it was exciting for fans to be a part of that atmosphere, it proved to be a game changer. It sparked college gymnastics into what it is today.
Bringing together the ‘Fab Four”
Already regarded as one of the nation’s premier programs, Yoculan set out to build a roster that could dominate the collegiate landscape. Additionally, the upcoming Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 had fueled interest in the sport, helping to cultivate a wealth of young talent who could continue their careers at the collegiate level. With eyes on some of the top gymnasts in the junior ranks, Georgia set out to pull in a recruiting class that could supplement the existing talent on the roster and propel them to the next level.
Lichey-Usry was at the top of the team’s wish list.
BROWN: It was a big priority getting her to Georgia.
LICHEY-USRY: I came on my recruiting trip and fell in love with the school, the team and everything about UGA. I walked on this campus, and it was spectacular.
BROWN: You get a gymnast who has been exposed to gymnastics their whole life, and you get them to Athens and it’s easy to fall in love with it. I remember Suzanne asking ‘what do you think about Karin’ and I was like ‘I’m pretty sure she had a good time and that we didn’t scare her.’
LICHEY-USRY: I remember going home that weekend and my dad was working in his garage, and I went down to him and said ‘Dad, I think I’m going to commit to the University of Georgia’ because I just fell in love with it. And he said ‘well, when you know, you know.’
ROSECRANS: This was the height of Suzanne Yoculan. She had it running at this point. Karin was a freshman, and they probably had the best recruiting class of all time at that point. It was Karin, Jenni Beathard, Stacy Galloway and Samantha Muhleman.
LICHEY-USRY: At the time, we were one of the number one recruiting classes that UGA had had. I definitely wouldn’t say we put it on the map, but I like to think we played a part in the success of the program.
ROSECRANS: I wrote the sh–tiest feature that I thought was the most clever thing in the world about the ‘Fab Four.’ I had probably one million Beatles references in it. It was, like, 800 words and 200 of them were Beatles references.
The meet gets underway
The ‘Fab Four’ immediately found their way into the Gym Dogs’ rotation, helping to make an already immensely talented team one of the nation’s best. The team hosted Kentucky on Feb. 23, 1996, in what would be only the eighth meet of Lichey-Usry’s young career. Georgia had once again positioned itself for a run for a title, and a near capacity crowd at Stegeman Coliseum awaited the two squads.
KENDALL: I went to the meet with my friends – Dianna and Julie Rutledge – who were on my gymnastics team, and my mom. We got there and before the meet started I casually asked my mom ‘has anyone ever gotten a perfect 40 before?’ I swear to God I asked her that. She said ‘no, I don’t think anyone ever has; that’s not really a thing that happens.’
LICHEY-USRY: When you come to be on the college team, you compete every weekend from January to April. This was my eighth meet, and I was exhausted. I was tired, and I wasn’t feeling well. We had competed every single weekend. I was in the lineup a good bit, and my body was starting to wear down a little bit.
BROWN: Gymnastics is hard on the body, and gymnastics was particularly hard on Karin’s body. There were a lot of days where people weren’t feeling up to their best.
LICHEY-USRY: I went up to the assistant coach, Doug McGavin, and I just told him that I’m not feeling like I can compete. He said ‘let’s just take it one event at a time and see how you do,’ so that’s what we did.
BALLARD CLARK: We truly tried to have a relationship of faith, and at that time you go through your struggles, your adjustments and your ups and downs – new coaches, new environment, new friends, injuries. On that night she was hurting, but she also was relying on her faith.
KENDALL: The first 10 comes in, and you’ve got the big 10 signs you’re holding up that we all had at that time. Then the second one rolls in, and my friends and I are buzzing. We’re moving around the coliseum to try and get as close as we can to watch every event.
ROSECRANS: The beam was (the team’s) nemesis. The story going into that year was could they not mess up on the beam. No matter who was on the beam, it seemed like it was cursed.
LICHEY-USRY: I didn’t feel any pressure on the beam, which is crazy since it was what I struggled the most with in practice, especially my dismount.
BALLARD CLARK: You want (your routines) to be perfect, but she allowed herself to be calm in the moment, and the outcome was there for the third event.
KENDALL: Then, that third 10 rolls in after the beam, and the place felt like it was about to explode.
LICHEY-USRY: I don’t really remember much about that beam routine, honestly.
BALLARD CLARK: We all were like ‘are you kidding me?’
ROSECRANS: It reminds me of covering Scooter Gennett’s four home run game. After two 10s or two home runs, you’re like ‘oh man, it would be pretty crazy for another one.’ … I don’t think I was thinking 40 after the first two, and I wasn’t thinking four home runs with Scooter Gennett. It was only after the third home run, and you start looking at the lineup for him and you wonder if he’ll get another at-bat. But for Karin you knew there was the floor.
BROWN: When she got the third 10, there was no doubt she was going to do that fourth routine.
All eyes on the floor
At this point, Lichey-Usry already had etched her name in the history books as the first collegiate gymnast to tally three perfect scores in a meet. The sellout crowd could sense that something historic was happening, and the energy in the building was nearing a fever pitch with one event remaining – the floor routine.
ROSECRANS: When she got the 10 on the beam, you’re like ‘holy crap, that’s 10-10-10.’ That’s when you’re like ‘has anyone ever done that’ because, you know, I didn’t know.
BROWN: I very specifically remember after the beam – that’s when I remember speaking to her – and I was like ‘you’ve got this; go hit it.’
BALLARD CLARK: Going to the fourth event, we’re all like ‘you’ve got nothing to lose; go have some fun!’ It was the epitome of learning to have fun because she often was so serious when it came to her gymnastics.
LICHEY-USRY: I didn’t feel pressure until I went to floor, and that’s when I went into the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘well, no one’s ever gotten a 30, so let’s just go out there and have fun since you’ve already set a record because no one had gotten three 10s in one meet.’ So I took the pressure off myself so I could go out and have fun.
BROWN: That was what my conversations with Karin focused on – ‘don’t let this be bigger than you; you keep doing what you’re doing.’ You could see she was in the zone. That day was different.
KENDALL: We wanted to watch every single moment and be as close as possible to see it.
BROWN: After she landed her first pass and nailed it, I was like ‘this is a done deal.’
KENDALL: I remember that stuck landing on the floor. That last moment of stillness, there was a beat and then it just erupted. Everyone knew that was a 10 even before it was a 10.
ROSECRANS: They were chanting ‘10! 10! 10!’ – which they would do a lot – but it was intense, just that waiting. That’s the other thing. When the guy hits the fourth home run, you know he hit the fourth home run. When she finishes, you’re like ‘I think maybe there’s a chance’ and you don’t know until they flip the scores up.
LICHEY-USRY: Gymnastics is a sport where you go and do the routine, but the scoring is out of your hands. You have no control over what the judges are going to give you.
BALLARD CLARK: There definitely was that dynamic between the judges and wondering if they were going to give (that score) to us.
BROWN: As a competitor I never wanted to say something like this, but after that last pass there was no doubt what score had to go up.
KENDALL: Those judges might have been in mortal danger had she gotten a 9.75 or something.
BROWN: I do remember after the meet joking with her ‘oh, so you didn’t feel so great.’
LICHEY-USRY: We went out to dinner, and my dad had to call my mom. My mom, who is a gymnastics coach, did not believe that I had just scored a perfect 40. So they had to get someone on the phone, either Doug or Suzanne, to say “yes, Dave is telling the truth.”
KENDALL: Julie, who was a few years older than me, just kept shaking her head and saying ‘she can never be beat.’
A feat that is unmatched
Following the meet against Kentucky, Lichey-Usry was met with a wave of stardom on campus and beyond. She was interviewed by Sports Illustrated for a potential piece on her perfect night, and the Gym Dogs were primed to compete for a national championship later in the season.
However, the following week against rival Alabama, she fell twice and ultimately was diagnosed with two fractures in her vertebrae. Though Georgia finished third in the NCAAs that season, Lichey-Usry would go on to help lead the Gym Dogs to a pair of team titles, earn multiple All-American honors and capture the Honda Sports Award in 1999 as the nation’s top collegiate gymnast.
To this day, she remains the only collegiate gymnast to ever record a ‘Perfect 40’ in competition.
LICHEY-USRY: Going into Alabama, my body was done. My back was like ‘no more, we’re not going to let you do this anymore.’ I came back right in time for nationals. I was out from Alabama to the nationals, and I just competed on beam at nationals that year.
BROWN: The sport is hard on the body, and it was particularly hard on Karin. She was an all-arounder, and it’s hard to take that constant pounding. It’s very different from club gymnastics. You train differently and the demands are different. I don’t think it was the pressure, per se, I think it was the sport itself. Coming off such a phenomenal weekend, I think it’s just a testament to the intensity and the cruelty of the sport. It’s grueling.
LICHEY-USRY: You’re so focused in the moment that you don’t see too much. I remember it being a packed coliseum. There were a ton of people there that night. But when I talk with fans who were there, they said the crowd was buzzing.
BALLARD CLARK: That night was pretty magical.
KENDALL: (Those Gym Dog meets were) some of the happiest memories of my childhood.
ROSECRANS: It was the coolest thing, and I’d put it up against any other event I’ve covered in my career.
BALLARD CLARK: (What she did that night) are the things we all strive for, but you never seem to execute it on all four events. For her to do that on all four events just showed the ultimate mental strength.
LICHEY-USRY: It’s quite humbling because it was so long ago, but because I live in Athens it stays alive a little bit more. I guess it doesn’t hurt to have your picture up in Stegeman Coliseum for all to see.
Where are they now
Karin Lichey-Usry is one of the most decorated collegiate gymnasts of all-time, earning All-American honors in all five categories in 1998 and 1999. She currently is the director of board relations for the UGA Foundation and remains active with the Georgia gymnastics program.
Dr. Leah Brown won the national championship on the vault in 1996 and is the only college gymnast to score a perfect 10 in a single event on three straight days of NCAA Championship competition. She is an orthopedic surgeon in Phoenix, Az., after serving two tours overseas with the U.S. Navy.
Julie Ballard Clark was a two-time All-American for the Gym Dogs and was named SEC Freshman of the Year in 1995. Today she is a realtor with Weichert Realtors in Baton Rouge, La.
Erin Kendall was 11 years old the night of the ‘Perfect 40’ and gave gymnastics up after eighth grade, but cheered for both Georgia and Tulane. Today, she works as a midwife with Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston, S.C.
C. Trent Rosecrans would go on to work in sports journalism for the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, the Cincinnati Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Today he is the beat writer for the Cincinnati Reds for The Athletic.