Even before Haley de Jong stepped onto the mat as a freshman GymDog, Georgia gymnastics head coach Courtney Kupets Carter knew she had inherited an invaluable member of her team, one that understood the complexities of being a team player in a traditionally individual-focused sport.
“I specifically remember several team meetings and conversations ... and wow,” Kupets Carter said. “She surprised me. She made me feel like ‘Wow she's a freshman, and she [already] totally gets this.’”
That mature and team-oriented mentality Kupets Carter noticed in de Jong has served the sophomore well in her short time at Georgia. She’s appeared in at least one event’s lineup each meet since becoming a GymDog and provided consistent performances throughout her career.
In two years competing with Georgia gymnastics, minus the canceled 2020 postseason, de Jong has worked her way up from performing on bars and beam as a freshman to now taking titles in the all-around. She averages a 39.23 in the all-around and has either matched or beaten career-high scores on bars and beam this year.
But regardless of how many events she’s competing in that night, she said she keeps a “one step at a time” mentality to stay grounded.
“There's a little bit more preparation going in when I'm doing more events, just making sure my body is fully ready to go and I really like visualizing and focusing on every routine,” de Jong said. “With doing all-around you're constantly moving, you don't really have breaks, so you just really got to keep your like mindset and your energy at a steady pace.”
That steady pacing and consistency was something that de Jong had to learn once coming to college. After competing as an elite gymnast in Canada, the adjustment to competing more frequently was difficult but was facilitated by her experience in training.
The sophomore noted that the time spent perfecting her routines in the gym was what helped her transition from elite to collegiate gymnastics the most. To Kupets Carter, that motivation to hone her craft is an admirable trait, but sometimes one that needs to be controlled.
This season, Kupets Carter has emphasized her desire to get as many GymDogs trained in as many events they can do in an effort to increase versatility in skills, but also to give the gymnasts an opportunity to explore and enjoy events they hadn’t been able to in years past. With de Jong, the coaching staff sees her excel so much in practice that sometimes they need to dial back her assignments to make sure she is fresh for that week’s meet.
De Jong is just happy to be along for the ride. After the 2020 postseason was canceled, she has taken every opportunity to learn and grow in 2021.
“Last year I didn't know what to expect because I have never done it before,” de Jong said. “So I feel like through this year I'm kind of able to focus in more on my gymnastics and not so much like my surroundings just because I know what I'm doing more now and I've been around the block. … With experience, it's been a lot easier to really focus in on my tasks and little details.”
The attention to those little details is yet another practice that makes de Jong such an invaluable gymnast to Kupets Carter. If she can’t work out a tumbling pass or figure out a beam connection, de Jong immediately goes to her coaches to find a solution, one that pays off in competition.
“There might be a few mistakes, but she's fighting for every tenth throughout their entire routine,” Kupets Carter said. “It's not a give up moment, it's a, ‘I'm going to continue fighting through the rest of it.’ So that's where she becomes really reliable.”