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A family legacy for gymnastics star Elizabeth Culton

Elizabeth Culton's grandfather made his mark on Carolina in 1972 when he was an assistant athletics director the year the University established its first seven varsity women's sports, including gymnastics. Now Elizabeth is building her own legacy as an All-American gymnast at Carolina.

Elizabeth Culton celebrating with teammates.
(Photo by GoHeels.com)

Life often exists on a circular path.

For Tar Heel gymnast Elizabeth Culton, that is especially true of her athletics career at the University of North Carolina, which is celebrating 50 years of women’s athletics this year.

A native of Durham and a veteran youth gymnast at the Bull City Gymnastics club team, Culton was honored as a first-team All-America in 2021 and was the first Tar Heel to earn first-team honors since national champion Courtney Bumpers in 2005.

The honor had special significance, considering her grandfather, Bill Cobey, was an assistant athletics director when Carolina established its first seven varsity women’s sports, including gymnastics, in 1971-72 under the Department of Health and Physical Education.

He had worked for Carolina for three years when the U.S. Congress passed, and President Richard Nixon signed, the national Title IX legislation expanding opportunities for women in 1972. He then was appointed the department’s Title IX officer, and over the next decade, UNC-Chapel Hill would add six more women’s sports, many during his tenure as director of athletics.

With degrees from Emory, Penn and Pitt and careers in banking and as an executive at Dow Chemical, he came to Carolina in 1968 as the academic advisor for Bill Dooley’s football team. Under then-AD Homer Rice, he quickly took on new roles as assistant business manager, assistant athletic director, Title IX officer and then became athletic director in late 1975 after Homer Rice left to be the football coach at Rice University.

Cobey’s role at Carolina was key in the expansion of athletic opportunities for women. In the multiple roles he played in Carolina athletics during his tenure, the University also added cross country, indoor track, outdoor track, golf, softball and soccer to the athletic program for women, bringing the Tar Heels to a level where they had 13 sports for men and 13 for women by 1979.

Among Cobey’s hires as head coaches were Frank Comfort in swimming, Kitty Harrison in tennis and, of course, Anson Dorrance in soccer, all of whom led women’s teams to incredible success and many championships over the years.

“At that time, I don’t think in my wildest dreams that I thought Carolina women’s athletics would develop into the program it is today,” said Cobey. “Certainly, we sought excellence, but what has happened has exceeded all expectations. We went about building women’s athletics with a purpose just as we had competed in men’s athletics. We wanted to be the best.”

Cobey’s role in promoting and expanding women’s sports in that era is now reflected in the success of his granddaughter, the daughter of Julian and Cathy Culton, and a graduate of C.E. Jordan High School in Durham. Elizabeth’s two brothers also went to Carolina, and her oldest brother, Cobey, worked in the athletic department as a student assistant in the sports information office.

Recruited to Carolina by former head coach Derek Galvin, whose time at the University spanned from 1981 to his retirement in 2020, Culton was drawn to Chapel Hill for more than just her family’s ties.

“I was recruited by Derek beginning in my freshman year of high school. He followed my career closely until my senior year,” Culton said. “Derek knew I had strong family ties to the University and he knew in my club career I was strong on all four events. My reputation was as a strong all-around gymnast, and I think Derek wanted that as an addition for his roster.”

Galvin, a Tar Heel himself, attended Carolina in the mid-1970s and competed in men’s gymnastics when it was still a varsity sport at the University. He took over coaching the women’s team in 1981 from Ken Ourso, the women’s gymnastics coach at Carolina from 1974-81, during most of Cobey’s tenure.

Women’s athletic director Frances Hogan, and then-athletic director John Swofford picked Galvin to coach the program and he stayed for four decades. His teams were strong athletically, but even more so academically and were highlighted by the three-year run of the incomparable Courtney Bumpers, a national champion and a three-year first-team All-America as named by the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association in 2003, 2004 and 2005. His career was capped with the presence of Culton on his squad.

Culton’s success at Carolina came quickly.  As a freshman in 2020, she was named the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Freshman of the Year based on her tremendous accomplishments in the regular season.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled post-season conference and national competitions that year, but Culton came back strong, admitting that she felt she made an incredible step up in her performance level between her freshman and sophomore seasons.

Her first-team All-America performance on the balance beam was Carolina’s first such honor in 16 years. She was first-team All-EAGL in conference action in three events and second in the other.

Culton has nothing but praise for Galvin in bringing her to Carolina and providing her the opportunity to become a Tar Heel.

“It was both a great joy and a great challenge competing for Derek. He expected a lot from us both athletically and academically,” she says.  “He is one of the nicest people you could possibly meet in life.  He’s incredibly supportive both in the world of athletics and, also, in life in general.  He was clearly one of the reasons I chose to come to Carolina.”

When Galvin recruited Culton, he knew she was one of the best young gymnasts to come out of the state of North Carolina in many years.

“Everything about Elizabeth was exceptional,” he says. “Her talent, her work ethic, her artistic performance and her academic record just jumped off the page as special attributes. She was delightful to work with. Everyone who is around her loves her. She is a fierce competitor.  She absolutely knows how to compete, but at the same time she shows tremendous support for her teammates and is an incredibly fun gymnast to watch.”

Of course, none of this should surprise anyone given her family lineage. Something that head gymnastics coach, Danna Durante, who replaced Galvin after his retirement, does not take for granted.

“Liz is an outstanding competitor and a model student-athlete here at Carolina,” said Durante, now in her first season at the helm of the Tar Heel gymnastics program. “But what adds to her journey is her connection to the storied history of Carolina’s women’s athletics. Her grandfather had a tremendous impact on the advancement of women’s sports programs here at Carolina, and Liz is now contributing to the continued growth in her own way. It is very special to share this experience and journey with her.”

The best is what Bill Cobey was looking for when worked diligently to champion the women’s program expansion at Carolina in the 1970s. The best is what Carolina got. Both in Cobey and, almost 50 years after his time as AD at Carolina, in his granddaughter.

The ties between one of the women’s program’s architects and the success of female student-athlete today, in many respects, shows that everything old is new again.

Life in a circular path, indeed.

This year, Carolina Athletics is celebrating 50 years of women’s athletics with a series of stories and social media content celebrating our many champions, legends and leaders who have shaped the landscape of women’s sports in Chapel Hill.
Learn more about the 50 years of Carolina women’s athletics