World Champion Gymnast Morgan Hurd's Rise to Fame

Within weeks, the Middletown resident exploded from local unknown to international phenomenon. Next stop: Tokyo 2020?


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Now a high school junior, Hurd was introduced to gymnastics when she was 3.//Photo by Daniel Lea/CSM/Alamy Live News

 

The Career Highlights section of Morgan Hurd’s bio on the U.S. Gymnastics website was empty when the 16-year-old Middletown resident began competition at her first senior event, the 2017 World Championships in Montreal. There were no junior victories cited, no overwhelming performances at national events. Hurd hadn’t even made the U.S. team that would be compete in Canada until just a couple weeks before she took to the mats and apparatuses.

So you would have forgiven anyone watching and analyzing the women’s all-around contest if they didn’t consider Hurd a favorite. Most of those assembled—or watching remotely—didn’t even know who she was.

They do now.

Thanks to a series of routines in the final round that were free of any serious errors and to a relaxed approach that emphasized gaining experience instead of stunning the gymnastics world, Hurd captured the top prize in the all-around competition. The win continued U.S. dominance in that area and catapulted her from anonymity to the biggest stage in the world. It was a remarkable performance, and it was due almost entirely to her single-minded approach to training and a maturity she has shown over eight-plus years of preparation.

“Competing against so many amazing gymnasts, I just wanted to stay focused and do my job,” Hurd says. “I just focused on one event at a time, and I didn’t dwell on what I could have done, but what I had to do next. It’s an attitude I developed over the years.”

The bespectacled, 4-foot-6 high school junior has continued in the steps of Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles and has, during the course of a few weeks, moved from unknown to international phenomenon. Her victory in Montreal was validation of an approach to gymnastics that has been almost clinical in nature.

Yes, Hurd is a big fan of Harry Potter—“I choose the books always before the movies,” she says—and on her one day off a week (Sunday), she enjoys hanging out with friends or simply resting. “Sundays are nice,” she says.

But encounter her at First State Gymnastics in Newark, and she transforms from a kid into an elite athlete with an approach and seriousness one would expect from a world champion. Hurd has trained at First State since she was eight. (She was first exposed to the sport as a 3-year-old.)

“She’s one of these kids who, even though she’s 16-and-a-half, she acts like a young adult,” says Slava Glazounov, Hurd’s trainer and coach for the past eight years. “Even at an early age, she exhibited adultness. She’s quiet and stays to herself. She’s mature. There are no childish games. She is here to work. She puts her work in and goes home.”

At the worlds, when it came time for Canada’s Ellie Black to complete her floor exercise, Hurd could only sit, wait and hope the judges’ scores would add up to a victory for her. Black was one of the two established, championship-caliber gymnasts who remained in the field after U.S. national champ Ragan Smith injured her ankle in warm-ups for the vault. Smith then followed Romanian Larisa Iordache and Brazilian Rebecca Andrade to the sidelines. They had been injured before the competition had begun.

Black had one last chance to gain the gold. It would not only be the first gold medal for a Canadian gymnast at the world championships—it would also be the only medal anyone from Canada had won.

“It was pretty tough, waiting like that,” Hurd says. “I was pretty anxious. I couldn’t sit still.”

As Hurd fretted, Black went through her routine. It was strong, but it wasn’t strong enough. When the final calculations were complete, Hurd had won the title by a tenth of a point. “It just felt surreal,” Hurd says. “I kind of cried a little. My mom was in the stands.”

Mom Sherri Hurd brought Morgan to this country from China when Morgan was only 11 months old. Sherri Hurd home schools Megan, a high school junior who has committed to attend the University of Florida in the fall of 2019. Sherri took Morgan to mommy-and-me gymnastics classes, and Morgan developed an early affinity for the bars and beam. She trained some as a tyke, then moved on to First State at 8 years old. Morgan reports that by sixth grade, she “started to get really serious.”

That focus informed her performance at the world championships. Rather than aim for a spot among the medalists, Hurd was merely trying to execute. Because it was her first senior competition, she didn’t want to clutter her mind with expectations.

“When you have talent, you don’t focus on competition. You focus on the future,” Glazounov says. “You train for the future, rather than quick success. Because of that, competition isn’t that important.”

Hurd’s approach makes her a natural for the all-around. Glazounov says that she has the potential to excel in any event, thanks to a “bouncy” nature that helps with the vault and her ability to transfer attention to women’s gymnastics’ four disciplines: vault, balance beam, uneven parallel bars and floor exercises. In Montreal, Hurd’s performance wasn’t perfect. In the preliminaries, her knee touched the ground during the floor exercises, a mistake that cost her a full point. A reporter described Hurd’s performance on the beam as “choppy,” with “more than a couple of wobbles.”

But when it came time to best the competition in the floor exercise final, Hurd was strong. On one pass across the mat, she stepped briefly out of bounds, but she was otherwise in command. After that, it was a matter of time. Hurd had been first in the lineup, and Canada’s Black was next to last. That meant waiting, wondering and worrying.

“I tried not to focus on the rankings,” Hurd says. “Even if I had done well, it was up to the other competitors and what the judges decided. But as I watched the other competitors, it felt surreal. So crazy.”

Now that Hurd is a celebrity—at least in gymnastics circles—the inevitable question arises: What about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?

By then, she will be 19 years old, which is borderline over the hill in the women’s version of the sport. So many variables will determine whether she participates. First, there is the issue of height. She was 4-feet-5 when she won in Montreal. Hurd mentions that she is now “a little taller, but not too much”—but the difference matters in a sport where precision is so important. Yet Hurd is the smallest member of the 24-person women’s team, which is an advantage, Glazounov says. Spinning through the air is easier when one is small.

Another factor is the relatively arbitrary way people qualify for major meets. Three to four weeks before the 2018 world championships in Doha, Qatar, there will be a training camp, where a committee will choose the participants. It’s not as if the top five finishers in the U.S. championships qualify automatically. Even if Hurd continues to train conscientiously, remains healthy (she was fighting an elbow issue at the world meet) and improves, there is no guarantee she will get to defend her title.

Even if she doesn’t, her impact on the other gymnasts at First State has been profound. Hurd’s presence at the training center inspires younger competitors who see her and think anything is possible.

“They believe,” Glazounov says. “It’s real and so close to them. The kid who has been training with them for so many years becomes world champion, and it makes them believe they can do it also.”

As for Hurd, she has gone from anonymity to the best in the world. No matter where she competes in the coming months and years, that resume item will always be with her. She will be the one to beat, the defending champion.

“I think it will be nerve-racking,” she says. “There will be higher standards for me. But I will block everything out during practice and focus on what I need to do.”

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