Ryan Roberts holds a clipboard during a Georgia meet.

Ryan Roberts, Newcomers Bring Cultural Reset to Georgia

Note: We use “boys” and “girls” gymnastics in this piece to describe the USAG Developmental Program disciplines, and not as an assumption of the gender identity of the athletes competing in those disciplines. 

The glide kip is an easy skill to do. Notoriously one of the toughest skills to learn as an up-and-coming gymnast, it quickly evolves into a basic, something gymnasts hardly think about. It’s ubiquitous, part of nearly every bar routine at every level of gymnastics.

To Ryan Roberts, Georgia assistant coach, that’s why it’s so important. It’s foundational. The quality of the kip sets the basis for the skills that follow, like a cast handstand. Never mind that judges can deduct for things in the kip itself, such as bent arms, extension or poor foot or leg form.

The Georgia bar lineup practices kips as part of its basics work. Gymnasts focus on every individual skill in their routines, not just the big things like handstands, releases and dismounts. That bite-size holistic approach is Georgia’s ethos in 2023.

Courtney Kupets Carter added Roberts to her staff in the summer of 2022, along with interim assistant Sam Welbourn and volunteer assistant coach and Kentucky alumna Mollie Korth. The new-look staff joined 11 newcomers—eight freshmen and three transfers—to complete the Gymdogs’ 2023 roster. With only seven returners, the roster is more newcomers than Georgia veterans.

Roberts’ history in gymnastics began as an athlete, both at the elite level and then at now-defunct collegiate programs at the University of New Mexico and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Though he coached boys on the side while an athlete, Roberts had no intention of pursing coaching as a career.

Out of college, he began a four-year stint in the United States Marine Corps, last stationed in California. When he left active duty, there was a decision: Join the corporate workforce or go back to what he knew. Roberts’ old coach from New Mexico had an opening at West Coast Elite in Arcadia, California, for a girls coach, and Roberts took the job.

Roberts formed his coaching foundation while at West Coast Elite and working with Fernando Villa, one of Gabby Douglas’ pre-London coaches. He learned a lot while working with two gymnasts who became some of the biggest names in college gymnastics: Hallie Mossett and Felicia Hano.

Eventually Roberts married his wife Hanne, who is Norwegian, and his coaching journey moved overseas to Norway, where he ended up getting assignments to major international meets—like the world championships—with the Norwegian national team.

Returning to the United States, Roberts landed at WOGA, where he again coached an impressive roster of athletes: Audrey Davis, Luisa Blanco, Chloe Negrete, Sloan and Skye Blakely, and Ira Alexeeva. Clearly proud of his former athletes, Roberts can readily list their universities and accomplishments.

Through all the twists and turns of his club coaching career, Roberts focused on soaking up everything he could every step of the way.

Then one day former Alabama head coach Dana Duckworth called, offering Roberts a position with the Crimson Tide. The move made sense for his family, so Roberts—who had never considered making the move to college coaching—took the job, where he focused on bars.

“I’ve always kind of been a bars coach,” he said. A former national champion on the high bar, Roberts coaches uneven bars nearly the same as he did his signature event. “There’s a lot of similarities bio-mechanically.”

When Duckworth stepped down from her position, Roberts knew Kupets Carter was on the market for a new assistant. He called her and started the interview process, finding the school a good fit.

“I think I can really grow some roots here,” he said.

At Georgia, Roberts is anything but “just” a bars coach. While he still primarily focuses his efforts there, the Gymdog staff works holistically. If Roberts sees a correction that needs to be made on beam, he makes it. Not only does that ensure little things don’t slip through the cracks, it also almost always fixes issues the same gymnast may be having on other events as well.

“If you have a technical issue on bars, like throwing the head back, the likelihood that you do that on all four events is pretty good,” he said. The holistic approach expands to gymnastics-specific strength work and general basics, too, which the team spends significant time on every practice.

Junior Katie Finnegan has noticed a difference. She describes Roberts’ coaching as “very technical” and appreciates his straightforward style and the focus on basics and endurance. Most of all, though, she’s gained confidence.

“I’m just a lot more confident in general,” Finnegan said. Roberts “just makes me feel very comfortable in my spot, and I can say that about the other girls too.” Now, Finnegan has the belief in her ability to hit a late-lineup routine for a big score, something she never believed before.

It’s paying off, too: She has matched her career high 9.900 three times already this year. She even debuted in the vault lineup as a junior, something she never thought she would do, and credits Roberts and Welbourn with getting her there.

The bar lineup on the whole has improved. Senior Haley de Jong has also matched her career high 9.925 multiple times, and Kentucky transfer Josie Angeny is nearing her career mark. The national No. 11 lineup also features two freshmen, Naya Howard and JaFree Scott.

No one’s average is below a 9.737, and halfway through the season the bar team has put up only one routine with a major error. That’s a far cry from the 2022 squad that never really found its top six routines and finished the year ranked No. 27.

Roberts also said that fans may see a new face in the lineup soon. Freshman Jacquie Moran is nearing the lineup, and is just working through some endurance issues. They may see Loulie Hattaway return, too.

Certainly some of the changes in Georgia’s overall look this year come from being a remade team. The eight newcomers and seven returners started bonding this summer during their retreat while working with the Marines.

“That was the first time all of us really sat down and had deep conversations and really worked together,” said Finnegan. The Gymdogs made a plan for 2023 and formed deep connections. Kupets Carter paired her team off in a “Big Sis, Little Sis” way, matching a newcomer with a returner to take the overwhelmingness out of meeting so many new teammates. “We just kind of meshed after that,” said Finnegan.

Roberts hopes the effort the staff put into building a positive culture shows. To him, in the gym, the bonds the team has is evident to the staff. The drive and motivation to keep getting better and pushing toward goals is coming from the gymnasts, rather than the coaches, a hallmark of a united group.

That closeness shows on the competition floor too. To Finnegan, competing is about supporting her teammates and staying in the bubble, not letting the loudness of, for example Florida’s crowd, get to them.

The focus on one thing done well at a time applies to competition as much as practice. Kupets Carter reiterates that a meet is just one routine at a time. Mistakes start to happen when the Gymdogs look too far ahead.

“If that ever does happen, we take a step back, take a deep breath and focus on whoever’s going up next or whoever is on the equipment,” said Finnegan.

Roberts emphasized focus as well, noting that he doesn’t want his gymnasts worrying about scores; that’s the coaches’ job, and the gymnasts’ only job is to compete. To him, some mistakes and falls are expected. Gymnastics is hard, and no one is perfect all the time. Because the Gymdogs expect some mistakes, they practice for what comes next.

“If you expect that, then it’s not a huge thing. Let’s refocus and move on,” said Roberts. The attitude is fresh in Athens, at a program that famously once had gymnasts sleep with mini balance beams under their pillows after too many mistakes on the event.

The 2023 Gymdogs have two big goals in their sights. They hope to qualify to the SEC night session, especially since it is in nearby Duluth, Georgia. The other goal is one the team hasn’t achieved since 2019: A berth to nationals.

While those goals are top of mind, the focus as with everything is smaller. Georgia looks for ways to improve one meet at a time, one way to be better this week than last week. And the philosophy seems to be working. The team’s Week 6 196.583 average is higher than the average it held to finish the 2022, 2021, and 2020 seasons.

Roberts brings the philosophy of focusing on the now in his personal life too. If the right SEC head coaching role ever opened up, he’d consider it, but for now, he’s happy where he is. He’s enjoying watching his team step up and defy expectations.

“I think a lot of people have underestimated them, and I think they’re stepping up,” he said of the team. As of the beginning of Week 6, Georgia sits at the bottom of the extremely competitive SEC, with the night session berth looking out of reach—though the transition to NQS could change things up, especially since the Gymdogs have been strong on the road. But Roberts likely isn’t worried about that.

Instead, he’s almost certainly working with someone to perfect a glide kip, knowing what it’ll lead to next.

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Article by Emily Minehart

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