Courtney Bumpers was “that child,” she says, the child who quickly found her way out of her crib, the child with boundless energy who required an outlet. Growing up, Bumpers tried to find that outlet through activities like ballet, figure skating, tennis, swimming and diving. But it was a ‘Mommy and Me’ gymnastics class that did the trick. “I’ve loved it ever since,” she says.
By the time Bumpers chose a college, she was looking for the right combination of academics and athletics, and she found it at Carolina. “For me, it was the academics as well as the strength of the gymnastics team,” she said. Bumpers recognized that she wasn’t going to become a professional gymnast, so “I wanted to go to a school where I knew I could get a really good academic education, so that once I finished college I’d be able to go on and go to grad school, or use my degree and be able to get a job. That was something very important to me.”
Bumpers found that Carolina’s gymnastics program was very academically minded. “I liked that the gymnastics team all seemed to be smart women,” she said. “They had good grades and they went on to do other things after gymnastics. That was important as well.”
College gymnastics offered a team atmosphere that was a bit different to what Bumpers had competed in growing up. She was a Tar Heel; she wore Carolina colors and had the support of a team structure. “When you’re wearing Carolina colors, you’re part of a group, part of a team that means something,” she said.
At Carolina, Bumpers found her best events to be the floor exercise and the balance beam, and she competed in the all-around. “Once you get to college, [the coaches] look and see where your strengths are, and sometimes you get to do all-around, and I was fortunate enough that I got to do all-around for all four years,” she said.
Her career began with a bang. Bumpers won the all-around competition at her first four meets and earned a perfect 10.0 on the floor at the fourth meet of her career. For her efforts, she was named East Atlantic Gymnastics League Rookie of the Year. That season, she took fourth place in the balance beam at the NCAA National Championships.
In 2004, Carolina missed qualifying for the NCAA National Championships by .025, but Bumpers qualified as an individual with a 9.90 on the beam and 9.95 on the floor.
“I don’t know if it’s the most difficult skill, but for me the most memorable was my first tumbling pass,” she says today. “It’s a double layout and then a punch front, so I’m going in one direction, and then I land and immediately go in the other direction. I think that was exciting because nobody in college gymnastics that I can remember was doing that skill.”
At the National Championships in Los Angeles, she tied with Alabama’s Ashley Miles for the national title, with a 9.9375 on the floor exercise. As a sophomore, Courtney Bumpers was an NCAA champion. “It was almost a surreal feeling,” she says. “I don’t want to say like a dream, but it happened and I won, and it was exciting.” Even after securing the Carolina program’s first national title, Bumpers kept reaching higher.
“I think you’re always trying to get the perfect ten,” she said. “You always want the perfect routine, and unless it’s perfect, you always have something to work on and I think that’s the biggest thing is looking and saying, ‘Well, I’ve always got something to work on.’”
And so she worked. Bumpers appeared in Nationals for a third year in 2005. With a national title to her name, she knew she’d need to bring her best to the floor. With new music and a new routine, she wowed the judges and secured the first (and still only) perfect 10 since the NCAA went to six judges in event finals in the 1990s. “I just think I was in a zone that day,” she said. “You have some competitions where you’re just in the zone, and everything comes together: your training, your hard work, the hard work that your coaches and your teammates helped put in to help you do well, all of that just comes together at one moment, and you just hope that it’s the national championship when it comes together.”
After Carolina, Bumpers earned a juris doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Today, she practices as a federal prosecutor in Charlotte. Although it’s been a long time since she’s tumbled—you’re more likely to find her running—she continues to draw on her experiences as part of the Carolina gymnastics program. “The idea of always trying to get better, always wanting to learn and to grow and to develop,” she said. “I think that’s the one big way I really see my experience in gymnastics kind of moving into my professional work experience.
“There’s so much I have to learn and so much I have to do, just pushing every day to try to be a better attorney. With gymnastics, I was always trying to be a better gymnast.” In addition to that drive to better herself, Bumpers continues to enjoy working in a team structure. “You have to grow and learn from other people, and you rely on those other people you’re working with,” she said. “Gymnastics was the same way. You learn from the other people who you are on the team with and their support.”
Bumpers raised the bar and helped lay the foundation for a program that had been on the cusp of breaking through. “I think sometimes when you’re not used to going to nationals or winning the championships, it’s almost feels unreachable so I think when I did win the championship, when I did go nationals, people realized it could be done,” she said. The two-time national champion says that the program was headed in the right direction, but she helped prove that a national championship could be won in Carolina blue. “They were already kind of on that path already. They just needed somebody to show it could be done.”
By Turner Walston, CAROLINA the Magazine.
Published February 21, 2014.