By any measuring stick, Danna Durante’s first season as Georgia’s gymnastics coach was a qualified success.
Head coach Danna Durante and the Gym Dogs huddle after a gymnastics meet between in Athens, Ga., Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. Georgia won 197.00-195.40.
Durante, who in May 2012 was named to replace Jay Clark (who drew the unenviable task of succeeding the iconic Suzanne Yoculan), presided over the Gym Dogs’ first Super Six appearance in four years; led the team to a 20-6-1 mark, including victories over Alabama and Utah; and saw eight of her gymnasts earn 15 All-America honors.
But the Oklahoma native, who had served as head coach at Cal-Berkeley after a distinguished career as an assistant at Nebraska and Washington, utilizes different criteria to gauge success.
“If you measure success only in wins and losses, or only in championships, man, you’re failing all the time,” Durante, whose No. 8 Gym Dogs open the 2014 season tonight at No. 3 Oklahoma, said. “And to these young women who work so hard all the time, that’s unfair. My definition of success is: Are we giving our best effort every day? Are we coming away from this gym every day better? Did we learn something? Not every practice goes the way I hope, but I ask myself those questions. I always want us to be one day better.”
And even using a different yardstick than most, Durante felt her first season in Athens went quite well.
“Obviously, the Super Six finish was tremendous, but there are a lot of athletes, particularly our seniors, who finished on a positive note, (who) felt proud of what they did and left with no regrets,” Durante said of the departed Shayla Worley, Christa Tanella, Noel Couch and Katie Breazeal.
“Those seniors finished with success and finished with pride in what they had done, and they had some monkeys on their back. And we had some sophomores and freshmen who came in and had a lot of success. But ultimately, for me and for the staff, to feel like the team had accepted us at the end of the year was tremendous.”
But it wasn’t easy. Durante had inherited team that had experienced a malaise in the wake of Yoculan’s retirement after coaching 26 years and claiming 10 NCAA championships, 16 Southeastern Conference crowns and 21 regional titles. The veteran Gym Dogs were recruits and loyalists of Clark, and a coaching change in major college athletics generally produces some tremors.
“Last year was definitely a transition year and I definitely loved Jay and was recruited by Jay, so it was a big change for me,” junior Chelsea Davis, who earned first-team All-America status in vault and bars in 2013, said. “Some personalities connected quicker than others — some people were very welcoming, but it took a little longer for some of the stronger personalities to warm up to (Durante). But by the time the season started, we were all on board, trusting her.”
“It must have been hard,” sophomore Brittany Rogers, a member of Canada’s 2012 Olympic team and an All-American as a freshman, said. “I can’t imagine Danna coming in and dealing with 17 girls, and girls aren’t easy to deal with to begin with. This is a very prestigious program and I can’t imagine how hard it was for her. I hope we made it easy for her and this year we’re more comfortable with each other. A lot of the freshmen were here in the summer, so it was easier for them to transition, which was nice.”
“The transition was difficult, no question, but I remember reminding myself in my daily prayer just to take it day by day,” Durante said. “For me to expect them to accept us and welcome us and have a great big hug from the beginning was unrealistic. We had to earn their trust. It’s nice when people like you — it makes things easier — but ultimately we had to earn their respect. And as the season went on, we continued to earn their trust and respect and they respected our discipline and our culture and the things we wanted to do, and we began to see results.”
While expectations — both within and outside of the program — may be on the rise in Durante’s second season, Georgia still figures to have one of its most challenging campaigns ever. Starting tonight with Oklahoma, the Gym Dogs — who have 11 returning competitors and a host of new faces — have dates this winter with preseason top-10 selections Stanford, LSU, Florida, Alabama and Utah. And with the exception of hosting No. 5 LSU at Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia will do a lot of its dirty work on the road.
“We have to take the same approach we did last year — taking it meet by meet,” Durante said. “I’m a firm believer in staying in that process. We’re excited that our schedule is tough. Honestly, you don’t get better by seeing competition that doesn’t challenge you. … We need to walk in every meet and perform to our absolute best, to our absolute potential. We’ve prepared, we’ve done the work and we’re trusting in that.
“We should not be gauging our performance based on who we’re seeing, but obviously, seeing Oklahoma, seeing Stanford, seeing LSU and Florida and everybody else is only going to make us stronger and better. Our young women will be seeing the best of the best right up front, and the freshmen who are competing … will see in person what their coaches have been telling them about. It will make us stronger and better down the road.”