Most college gymnastics fans remember 2017 as the year of the Sooners, when Oklahoma won its third national title in four years and definitively asserted itself as the team to beat after two decades of SEC dominance. As though formalizing this changing of the guard, Georgia—who won five consecutive national titles from 2005 to 2009—struggled to crack 9.800 on both vault and beam in the semifinals, ultimately posting its second lowest score of the season and finishing a disappointing 12th.
In a post-meet interview, head coach Danna Durante acknowledged that it’d been a “rough season” for the Gym Dogs, but insisted that she and the team had their eyes on the future. “The 2018 season starts tonight for me, for our coaches and for our athletes.”
Ten days later, the university announced she would not be returning for a sixth season as head coach.
It’s been five years since Durante’s unceremonious dismissal from Georgia, and still the program’s three highest national rankings in the post-Suzanne Yoculan era were earned under her leadership. For the past four years, she’s served as a Fortune 500 recruiter and director of operations for What Drives Winning, a period Durante describes as “phenomenal.”
“I needed [that time] to really make sure that if I got back into coaching, I was able to do it in a way that allowed me to be who I was authentically, and really partner with these young people in a way that is all about their growth and development,” Durante said. “And if I couldn’t do that, then I was fine working from home and doing what I love for a company I love.”
Despite her contentment, Durante kept a running short list of programs that could theoretically lure her back into collegiate coaching, with North Carolina right at the top. “It’s not just the athletic side or the academic side or the social side. It really is a place where the athletic coaches and the university are about developing young people.”
She feels that holistic approach aligns perfectly with her own coaching philosophies. “What I love about North Carolina is that it is very, very well rounded. They’re about growth and development, and are successful because of that,” Durante said. “That, to me, is what makes UNC unique and what makes it feel like it really aligns well with where I am in my life and my coaching career; they invest in people at every level. We get to surround ourselves with people who’ve been there and who can help all of us, including coaches, do better.”
One of the people Durante chose to be a part of her village at North Carolina is Marie Denick, the Tar Heels’ 2021 interim head coach. Typically, the outside hire of a new head coach is followed up with a wholesale staffing change to provide a clean slate from top to bottom, but Denick will serve as Durante’s assistant coach and primary recruiter. It’s an unusual move, but one that ultimately makes sense for both parties.
“In addition to everything she’s done on vault and floor, Marie is just very skilled at taking young people where they are and developing them further and helping them to become better athletes,” Durante said.
And though Denick explored other opportunities and offers, she calls the decision to stay at North Carolina a no-brainer. “It was really through the relationship I built with Danna and understanding where she sees the program going, what she values and brings to the table,” she said. “I mean, every day is fantastic! I can’t really explain it any other way. It’s really exciting to come into work with Danna and [assistant coach] Amelia [Hundley]. We bounce ideas off each other and balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s been great to have that open communication and really feel like nothing’s off the table.”
The introduction of a new coaching staff can also be a trying time for recruits, incoming freshmen or even current team members, especially when the announcement is made so close to the start of the school year. Denick’s inclusion on the staff helps bridge that transition a little better.
“Obviously change is scary but also really exciting, so I feel like having Marie here just makes everyone feel a little bit more comfortable,” freshman Lali Dekanoidze said. “She’s very excited and enthusiastic in the gym, so I think it’s great to have her stay.”
Despite some initial surprise at Durante’s hire due to the team’s success under Denick’s leadership, junior standout Elizabeth Culton is happy with the new head coach’s contributions.
“She is really detail oriented, which is a good thing. She really likes to focus on the basics and little things you can do to improve our gymnastics overall,” Culton said. “She likes to move fast and just get our work done really efficiently, but she also really cares about her athletes and how we’re doing in general.”
Along with that attention to detail, Denick believes Durante has also brought a little SEC swagger with her to Chapel Hill. “We’re seeing those athletes, our athletes now, walk into the gym with their chins up with pride in what they do. There’s just a feeling, like an air of confidence—not arrogance but confidence—in the way they go about their business now that I think is much more ‘SEC,’” Denick said. “You don’t walk into a program like Georgia and be a part of that for five years without really soaking in some of the things that have made them very, very successful.”
Ultimately, the proof is in the gymnastics, and Durante is impressed by what she’s seeing. “They’re deep on every event, and you see a good mix of both upperclassmen and freshmen pushing to get one of those [lineup] slots,” Durante said. “It’s such a good, fun, healthy mix of, ‘How can we push each other and make each event the strongest it’s ever been at Carolina?’”
That newfound confidence is also translating into grander team goals. “We asked the team…and they said, ‘Why not EAGL champions? Why not make regionals? Why not make the second day at regionals?’ We feel like all of these goals are very much within our grasp, and we’re excited about that,” Durante said.
However, she emphasized that beyond the outcomes on the competition floor, the staff’s primary goal is to create a brand of clean, well-executed and high level gymnastics that is “inspiring, beautiful and fun to watch.” And she hopes that brand will help grow the Tar Heels’ fan base and prepare the team to be a standout among ACC gymnastics’ inaugural cohort.
“As we move into the ACC, being part of a Power Five conference brings a certain caché with it. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility that we take very seriously, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that we represent not only North Carolina but the ACC and women’s collegiate gymnastics with great class,” Durante said. “We want the community to get excited about gymnastics, to come and pack Carmichael [Arena] and sell it out.”
In the face of so many changes, Durante is adamant that the foundation of the Tar Heel program will remain constant. “We all want to raise our visibility and promote Carolina gymnastics, but it will never change the way we approach showing up in the gym every day and coaching these young women to be their absolute best in every area of their lives.”
READ THIS NEXT: International Student-Athletes Are Missing out Big on NIL
Article by Claire Billman and Mary Emma Burton
Like what you see? Consider donating to support our efforts throughout the year!