The coming of the Athens Olympics means that one thing, at least, is certain—the teen queens of the gym are back. Supercharged sprites from around the world, performing dizzying combinations of twists, flips, pikes, giants and other feats the human body has no business doing. This year one of the strongest U.S. teams in recent memory may land not one but two stars on a cereal box: Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool—or Courtney Squared, as they're known. Kupets, 18, a two-time national all-around champ who came back from a potentially career-crippling Achilles tear to place first all-around at June's Olympic trials; McCool, 16 (see box), finished second. "What a pair!" says Bela Karolyi, who coached Mary Lou Retton and others to Olympic gold. "Courtney McCool is very much the brainy gymnast. Courtney Kupets is explosive, impressive and spectacular. Look for them to medal."

A year ago Kupets didn't know if she'd even be able to compete. As she was warming up at the world championships last August, a tumbling pass left her in a heap on the mat. After surgery, the Gaithersburg, Md., teen spent two months on crutches, underwent exhaustive therapy and didn't complete a full workout until this past February. "There were some tough times," Kupets admits. As a diversion, she painted her bedroom with horizontal stripes of hot pink, blue and purple. "It reflects her personality," says mom Patti, 46. "Cheerful and bright, but each stripe is exactly even—well thought-out and methodical."

Nadia Comaneci, for one, was blown away by Kupets's comeback. "With this girl, 80 percent of her skill is the power in her legs," says the 1976 and 1980 gold medalist. "When something happens to the tendon it is very hard to get back. But when I saw her, it was as if the injury had never happened. I've never seen anything like it."

Larissa Choutkin had never seen anything quite like Courtney back when Patti, a former phys-ed teacher, brought the 9-year-old—the third of her four children—into Choutkin's gym in Richmond, Va., for lessons. "Other girls took weeks, maybe months, to get a new skill," says Choutkin. "Courtney would learn it in a few hours." At 11, Kupets began working with current mentor Kelli Hill, who is now head coach for the women's Olympic team. "I thought, if I got my hands on her," says Hill, "I could do something with her."

Apart from her sheer athleticism, Kupets seems to score 10s when it comes to character. "There's something spiritual about her, a glow," says Comaneci. "She's really fun to be around," adds teammate McCool. Hitting the mall wearing low-cut (but not too low) jeans, Kupets, who just turned 18, seems an ordinary teen in many ways. But how many teens wake at 6:10 a.m—and apply a heating pad? "Something," she says, "is always sore."

Now Kupets stands poised to realize the payoff for all her pains. "It's the trip of a lifetime," she says of the Olympics. "It's like having an extra birthday party."

Richard Jerome. Susan Keating in Gaithersburg and Kate Klise in Lee's Summit

  • Contributors:
  • Susan Keating,
  • Kate Klise.