It’s one thing to grow a love for Chapel Hill while you're a student at UNC.
It’s another to be born with Carolina Blue blood in your veins. To make frequent pilgrimages to Kenan Stadium and the Dean E. Smith Center before you even have a concept of what college is.
At around 9 years old, Elizabeth Culton attended her first North Carolina gymnastics meet with her parents — both of whom are Tar Heel alumni. Awestruck, she leaned over to her grandfather, Bill Cobey, one of UNC’s past athletic directors, and said the wishful words that would one day come true.
“I told him I wanted to be a UNC gymnast,” Culton said.
About 10 years later, Culton is not only on the UNC gymnastics team — she was also named East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) Rookie of the Year after her 2020 season and is now one of the top-ranked balance beam performers in the country. Her talent, confidence and passion for the program have not only made Culton a standout in the gym, but one at her dream school itself.
‘The kind of gymnast you want to have’
Culton’s gymnastics journey started small with Mommy and Me classes when she was just 2 years old. She developed a love for her sport and started competing at age 7, building her way up to her eventual training program of 24 hours a week at Bull City Gymnastics.
“The coaches at Bull City were producing young women who still had a love for gymnastics. It wasn’t a chore or a job for them — they had a joy in doing their sport,” Derek Galvin, former UNC gymnastics head coach, said. “That’s the kind of gymnast you want to have.”
Bull City is in Durham, only a 15- or 20-minute drive to UNC. Culton’s family resided close to Chapel Hill as both her parents and older brothers attended the University. Culton’s family brought her to North Carolina gymnastics meets from the moment she started competing, which lit a fire inside of her. She immediately knew that UNC was the place for her.
Fast-forward to high school, where Culton continued to work hard in the gym so that she could stand out to colleges, consistently qualifying for Junior Olympic Nationals and earning prestigious awards in all four events.
In ninth grade, Culton started building her relationship with Galvin at UNC through phone calls, FaceTime conversations and recruiting trips. During her official college visits, Chapel Hill was her first destination.
In the scouting process, Galvin was always looking for athletes that fit his "puzzle." As an all-around gymnast who was exceptional on the beam, Culton was just the piece he was looking for.
“Elizabeth struck me as someone with strong execution of the skills she already had and because of her flexibility, strength and lines, we knew that anything she did would look good,” Galvin said.
Following her visit, Galvin told Culton he would hold a place on the team for her.
Her mind was made up.
“As soon as he told me that, I realized there was no reason to go visit anywhere else,” Culton said.
‘So many accolades’
After arriving at her dream school, Culton quickly adjusted to her new environment, both inside and outside of the gym. Whether it was on the beam or in the books, Culton just kept excelling.
In her first season of competition, Culton placed first in 13 individual events, was on the podium for 13 other individual events, earned four All-EAGL honors and set personal records for every one of her events: bars, vault, beam and floor.
All of these achievements culminated in her greatest honor of all: EAGL Rookie of the Year.
Meanwhile, Culton worked just as hard in the classroom to pursue her psychology and pre-nursing double major. She maintained above a 3.8 GPA the entire year and was named to the EAGL All-Academic Team, as well as the ACC Academic Honor Roll.
“There are so many accolades to her gymnastics and academic careers,” Marie Denick, the gymnastics team's interim head coach for the last seven months, said. “But who she is as a person speaks so much louder.”
To hear her coaches and teammates tell it, Culton is not only a hard worker and a great performer, but also a great teammate. She is excited to see her team’s success, and they are excited to see hers in return. To them, her good nature and dedication to the team helped foster the positive environment the coaches hoped to create within their gymnastics program.
“She’s always cheering for her teammates,” sophomore teammate Sophie Silverstein said. “If days aren’t going well, she’ll step aside and talk to them and help them get through it.”
‘Do what you know how to do’
Though her rookie season was cut short due to COVID-19, Culton stayed motivated throughout quarantine.
Like most bored college students, she took up some new hobbies, including reading historical fiction and baking — her favorite baked goodies being cookies, muffins and banana bread. Without a gym to practice in, she did workouts and ran at home to maintain her strength and flexibility.
Culton started off this season on a different foot, not only because of COVID-19, but because Galvin retired in June 2020 after 39 years with the Tar Heels. Denick, the assistant coach from years past, stepped up to lead the team into the 2021 season.
“Derek did a really good job handing the reins over to Marie,” Culton said. “Marie has done well this year stepping into the position, especially with the season being different because of COVID. She’s had to deal with a lot of changes.”
Though Galvin introduced Culton to North Carolina, Culton also has a special bond with Denick — especially in the moments right before her events.
“Right before she goes, it’s always a fist bump, and we look at each other right in the eyes, and I tell her, ‘Just have fun, and do what you know how to do,’” Denick said. “In that moment, it doesn’t matter if she gets a personal record, or she makes mistakes. I know at the end of the day, she’s having fun and performing not just for herself, but for the team.”
These pre-meet rituals must be helping Culton so far this season, as she notched a 9.950 on the balance beam during her very first meet of the campaign, establishing herself as one of the best in the country. The very next meet, she matched it. With an average score of 9.935, Culton is the second-ranked balance beam collegiate gymnast in the country.
Though the balance beam is typically the event that most gymnasts dread — it’s very easy to make mistakes performing on a 16.4-foot-long, 4-inch-wide piece of wood raised over 4 feet above the ground — the beam has always been where Culton has most excelled.
“For some reason, it’s my happy place,” she said. “Whenever I mount the beam and start doing my routine, I get in the zone. It’s the one event that I feel the most confident on.”
Culton set a goal the day she stepped into Carmichael Arena to watch UNC gymnastics. She has worked to achieve it every day since, and the blue blood in her veins has fueled the hard work, resilience, adaptability and determination that it has taken for her to secure her impressive reputation. She is the personification of the phrase Tar Heel born and bred.
And even after her gymnastics career is over, she’ll be a Tar Heel for life.