Sept. 9, 2011
By Jon Cooper
For 364 days of 2011 the University of Georgia probably considers Courtney Shealy Hart the enemy.
That’s understandable, as she spends those days focused on how to beat the Bulldogs as head coach for Georgia Tech’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving team.
On Saturday afternoon, however, there will be a truce, as Hart will be recognized in a ceremony at halftime of the Georgia-South Carolina football game for her impending induction into the Georgia Circle of Honor.
“I found out about it in June,” said Hart, a 2001 cum laude graduate, who has directed Georgia Tech’s swimming and diving program since April 30, 2009. “The athletic director from Georgia called and gave me the wonderful news. I was shocked and just humbled because I know that it’s a huge honor.”
It’s an honor Hart will share with her teammate Kristy Kowal and football player Billy Payne. The actual induction will take place on April 12, 2012. She admitted that she’s curious about how she’ll be received by the Sanford Stadium crowd.
“I don’t know what to expect to be honest,” she said. “I hope that everybody is happy for me because, I’m in a good place.
“That’s what I hope,” she added with a laugh.
To be eligible for induction into the circle, an athlete must not only have excelled at Georgia, but also in the international arena. There’s no question about Hart’s qualifications.
She and Kowal led the Lady Bulldogs to four SEC championships and the school’s first national championships in 1999 and 2000. Hart was the NCAA and SEC Swimmer of the Year in 2000 and finished her career with 19 SEC titles. After graduating, she represented the United States at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, earning gold medals in the 400 medley and 400 freestyle relays.
Hart was not only a world-class swimmer, but also a first-class volleyball player, earning 1998 most valuable player honors for the Bulldogs. She had the distinction of being the first Division I female athlete to compete in two separate sports on the same day, something she did three times in her career.
“I remember being exhausted at the end of the day,” she recalled. “It truly was adrenaline that got me through both events during the time that I was actually competing. I just absolutely loved to compete, so for me, it was truly a ton of fun. It was an amazing experience. I didn’t think about being the first athlete or being one of the first athletes to do two varsity sports. I did it because I wanted to and because it was something that I wanted to do.”
Hart said the Circle of Honor is one that will open the eyes of some of her current team.
“I think a lot of my current team members know that I did two sports, and some of them still don’t necessarily believe it,” she said. “But I think they’re kind of in awe of that, that I worked that hard and I know what it takes to get to the top. So it is fun to share with people.”
She’s especially looking forward to sharing the moment with Kowal, her roommate for eight years, who is now a teacher in Pennsylvania.
“We were best friends throughout college and even post-college because we stayed and got our Master’s degrees and trained for the 2004 Olympics,” Hart said. “To go into the Circle of Honor with her just seems natural to me. We went through Georgia together, we had a great program there, we won four Conference championships and two NCAA Championships and so it seems perfectly fitting for me to be going in with her.”
Hart also expects her parents, who are coming in from Columbia, S.C., to be present on Saturday.
It’s more ironic than fitting that Hart will be honored during the South Carolina game, as, although she is a native of the Palmetto state, she grew up rooting for Clemson — her dad’s alma mater and South Carolina’s arch-rival.
The match up has also created something of a conundrum as far as how to root.
Hart said she got a pass in rooting for her alma mater from Georgia Tech director of athletics Dan Radakovich — but on one condition.
“Dan did ask me today if I needed a couple of extra Tech tee shirts for the weekend,” she said, with a laugh. “I said I have plenty of those.”