Ten-year-old Rheagan Courville quickly ascended the scene and was now competing Level 10, the highest level in the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic Program, alongside girls two or three years her senior.
It was a rarity in club gymnastics, a cutthroat arena where individualization and skill ruled the day. Just perfecting one skill could promote a level change, regardless of age. Courville had God-given ability, never needing the private flexibility lessons or extra attention some of her competitors got, so here she was in a spot where older, more seasoned girls competed.
Her coach created a move and brought it to the youngster, knowing if Courville hit it perfectly it would be named after her.
It’s a switch Yang Bo.The head and back both touch the gymnasts’ back leg of a switch leap for a dazzling, contorting jump on the balance beam.
So it was up to Courville. Be perfect at that one meet on that one skill.
“I don’t remember how the rest of my routine was,” Courville says. “But I know that was perfect.”
Now it’s called “The Courville.”
Rheagan never performs it in competition, though she sometimes sees young gymnasts hit it. After 17 years in gymnastics, her back is too fragile to practice the move repeatedly.
She could throw it once. Just for old times’ sake, without that repetition or practice. But it wouldn’t be perfect.
And you’re crazy to think Rheagan Courville would ever do anything less than perfect.
Her 19 All-American wins are an LSU record, and she’s the first LSU gymnast to win the SEC all-around crown twice. In addition to her 92 individual titles and nine SEC Gymnast of the Week honors, she’s on track to graduate in sports administration and has her sights set on law school.
Still, as Courville and her team head to the Ames, Iowa, regional to begin the NCAA championships Saturday to try to capture the program’s elusive first national title, a fire burns.
“I’ve literally never been satisfied with what I’ve done,” Courville says. “There’s so much else I can accomplish.”
Picking her sport
Aaron Courville recalls that orange fence set up not too far from home plate. His 5-year-old daughter was the only girl on her coach pitch team, and the final day of the season had arrived when awards needed to be handed out.
Rheagan surveyed the table of awards, mostly medals and small trophies, but a few larger trophies caught her eye.
“Do we all get one?” she asked Aaron, pointing to the large trophies reserved for those who could hit the ball over that orange fence. Her father told her the stipulation.
So in the last game of her coach pitch career, the little girl who hadn’t hit the ball out of the infield all season stepped to the plate, needing only one pitch. The soft-tossed strike cleared the fence, and the nickname “hard-hitting Miss Rheagan” was coined by the field’s owner as he presented her the coveted trophy.
“Just that competitive aspect,” Aaron says.
That ended Rheagan’s baseball career. Soccer ended months before when she decided during one game it was just too cold to play. Aaron and his wife, Bridget, weren’t sure what the next venture would be. Mother and daughter walked down the street one afternoon and spotted a neighbor doing a cartwheel. Rheagan’s interest was piqued.
“I wanna do that,” she told her mother. “As long as I don’t have to wear a tutu.”
Gymnastics was nothing new to the family. Three-year-old Rheagan sat in front of her grandmother’s television set fixated on the 1996 Olympics, enamored with Ukranian Lilia Podkopayeva to a point where she yelled for her grandmother to be in the room when she performed. Posters of the gold medalist lined her bedroom walls.
Rheagan would meet her during her career at a camp. Podkopayeva was smitten and begged Aaron and Bridget to let her take Rheagan to Ukraine for training.
“I see so much of her in me,” she told the Courvilles, who weren’t about to let their daughter move halfway around the world.
Next-door neighbor Carly Patterson would often bring her medals over before escaping outside to the plastic playhouse with Rheagan. The two were so young neither knew what the future held.
Patterson was destined for Athens, winning the 2004 Olympic all-around gold medal. Courville had that chance. She was heavily pursued by Liang Chow, a venerated coach who trained Shawn Johnson and 2012 Olympic champion Gabby Douglas.
Say “yes” and Rheagan would need to move to Iowa to begin training for a spot on the 2012 Olympic team.
“Stressful,” Bridget says of the decision. “We told her, whatever it is you decide to do, it’s your choice.”
LSU coach D-D Breaux says Courville would have made the last Olympic team and would be training for the 2016 games if her body held up.
“(Chow) always told me he could do so much with me,” Rheagan says. “I just didn’t want to take that route at the time. I was really passionate about doing college gymnastics when I got to the age where I realized how rewarding it was, self-rewarding, and how you can be part of a team.
“I was drawn to being able to be a changing factor in a program like this.”
Creating her flow
First, it’s the base. Then, bronzer. Highlighter, eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara and eyebrows to finish. It’s the same makeup routine Rheagan employs every morning before she gets coffee. Do one thing out of order and the entire day is incomplete.
Walk into her room, and it’s organized, only as Rheagan can have it.
“Everything has a place, but if you walk in, you wouldn’t know that,” says Michelle Gauthier, her roommate of three years. “If there’s a spot for something, it will have something there.”
Gauthier is carefree and goes with the flow. Rheagan creates that flow. Her personality mirrors her unquenchable perfectionism — a “my way or the highway” mentality not sated by anything but perfection. Rarely does Rheagan clap for herself or get caught up in something she deems imperfect.
“Fierce attitude,” says former LSU gymnast and volunteer assistant coach Ashleigh Clare-Kearney. “We definitely have high expectations of ourselves and the people around us, and in a way, we demand greatness from those people.”
Courville’s training consumed her childhood, but when she could make it to LSU gymnastics meets, it was to see Clare-Kearney and her powerful floor routine that would end the meet.
Clare-Kearney is humbled as she hears Courville call her a role model. The two constantly text, mostly for advice on fashion and relationships. A staff attorney at the East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court, Clare-Kearney perhaps embodies what Courville’s future holds, though Rheagan is more interested in contractual and transactional law.
In the gym, Clare-Kearney is tasked with providing the same mental reaffirmations she needed as an athlete to Rheagan. Rheagan can often be her own worst enemy, overanalyzing every aspect of her practices and routines to fit her meticulous perfection.
Clare-Kearney says, at the Southeastern Conference Championships two weeks ago, Rheagan looked terrified before her floor routine. She sat out the rotation in the Tigers’ final two regular-season meets to nurse a hip flexor and now she was worried that lack of competition would somehow hinder her.
“But she gets like that because she wants to do so well,” Clare-Kearney says. “I try to help her realize that she doesn’t have to try to be perfect, because she can be perfect without trying.”
It’s the same sentiment from Breaux. Rheagan enjoys her bossiness and her direct, no-nonsense attitude, and the two share a goal-oriented and driven lifestyle.
Breaux’s also quick to tell her exactly where she’s flawed, whether it be when she’s too attached to social media or when she could further perfect a skill. There’s never an argument — those could drag on for days — but there’s always dialogue. She’s a student of the sport, so Rheagan offers her thinking behind why she does things, often presenting Breaux with an alternative or different of way to do things.
“There’s a deeper understanding of each other than what a lot of athletes have with a coach,” LSU assistant Jay Clark says. “There’s an uncommon bond between the two of them.”
Clark knows what gets Rheagan peeved. Tell her she doesn’t need to practice a skill, that it’s all right if she doesn’t take her turn. Challenge her ability once or twice. Clark ticks her off often. All good coaches should know what grinds their athletes’ gears, he says, though he always braces for her verbal snap back.
“I can argue any point,” Rheagan says. “Even if I’m wrong, I can convince you I’m right.”
‘Those three claps’
It was the same Yurchenko full she threw all season. The final vault during her final meet in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center against Minnesota, Courville hit the springboard, flew into the air and was flawless.
Didn’t think so? Just check her reaction. The stone-faced senior stuck the landing, sending assistant coach Bob Moore into a frenzy. Then, in an uncharacteristic break, she gave three quick claps exiting the mat. She was rewarded with a 10.0 and, finally, gave herself a round of applause.
“Those three claps,” Clare-Kearney says. “When she does that, you know it’s perfect.”
“She gets excited in a very innocent way,” Clark adds. “Like she didn’t expect it or wasn’t part of her plan.”
Clare-Kearney questions if there’s ever a true perfect 10. Slow the film down and scrutinize every step, and surely there’s a form break or a toe not pointed at some juncture. To please Courville, though, every routine must be perfect.
“If Rheagan is dialed in that day and if she’s feeling it, she’s unstoppable,” Clark said. “She doesn’t miss. It’s little things, little mistakes she makes. Small little cracks in her confidence or in her thought processes.”
On the cusp of the program’s best chance at its first national championship, practice agendas have shifted. No more fine-tuning. It’s perfect sets now. No surprise, that’s where Courville excels.
Her legacy is still unwritten. She’s the first to say how happy she is this season isn’t over, because frankly, she’s not satisfied. She won’t be until her teammates can surround her on the first place podium for a Super Six championship.
As a testament to Breaux’s team-first mentality, Courville is hesitant to heap praise on herself. She often brings in fellow seniors Jessie Jordan and Lloimincia Hall, without whom, she said, this success wouldn’t be possible.
Her parents still have never missed a meet in her entire career. They put her perfectionist persona into perspective, showing the joy they get from seeing their daughter compete no matter the score.
Clark calls her the best physical talent he’s ever coached. Breaux mentions her alongside Seimone Augustus and Glen Davis as the best athlete to ever come from Baton Rouge and as right up with the No. 1 gymnast she’s ever coached. Clare-Kearney, the school’s all-time leader in individual titles, joins her in Breaux’s company.
Courville doesn’t want you to talk about her career as if it’s finished, though the end is close. She’ll take a year off from school when it’s all done to let her career resonate and reflect on the burning question she’s still waiting to answer.
“I was not going to be satisfied,” she says, “with anything less than doing anything I possibly could.”