Morgan Hurd’s path to gymnastics gold began with 6-hour bus ride

Getty Images
0 Comments

NEWARK, Del. — Every time Morgan Hurd approaches the First State Gymnastics building, she is met by a life-size image of a gymnast in flight.

Arms extended toward the low bar of the uneven bars. Back straight. Legs together. Toes pointed.

It’s her eyes that stand out. You could run a straight line up from the low bar through her outstretched hands and into the nose of the black glasses that she is wearing.

Hurd, a few inches shy of 5 feet, walks to the entrance. Her face meets her face on the picture that takes up an entire door.

She forges into the training facility, just as she has most days since she was 6 years old.

In the last year, the lobby has been redecorated with framed gymnastics magazine spreads and covers and a promotional poster for the 2018 U.S. Championships. Hurd’s image is everywhere.

Through another door to the gym. No fewer than four large banners of Hurd spread across the walls that look down on young athletes training.

“It’s kind of weird, I guess,” said Hurd, sitting in a desk chair in the far corner of the gym, able to see it all if she peers out, on a Saturday afternoon in June. She explained.

“I’m the first elite [gymnast] of the gym … and of Delaware,” she said.

She was also crowned the world’s best gymnast in October.

Last summer and fall, Hurd went from sixth at the U.S. Championships to world all-around champion in a six-week span. She returns to nationals this week as a clear underdog given the return of Simone Biles.

“It was different last year because Simone wasn’t around,” Hurd conceded, then added, “I’m never going to a competition thinking of place.”

MORE: U.S. Champs TV, stream schedule | Biles eyes history

About 19 years ago, 39-year-old dental hygienist Sherri Hurd decided she wanted a child. She spoke with some of her patients and a friend who had adopted in Delaware.

One told her that they tried open adoptions nine times, and nine times the birth mother changed her mind and it didn’t go through.

So Sherri considered international adoptions. In particular, a company that worked in China, Guatemala, India and Russia. The first informational meeting was about China.

“A couple was at the meeting, had just come back with their baby girl and told about their experience,” Sherri said. “I had a feeling this was it, a chance for me to get a little girl from a country that needs my help, and there wouldn’t be any repercussions of somebody coming to take her away.”

It took between 18 months and two years. Sherri filled out documents over six months. She saw a psychologist. She waited for processing in China.

Finally, Sherri flew to Hong Kong and then to Nanning in a group for 10 total adoptions from the same orphanage.

Sherri’s recollection from that day is clear. The first thing she remembered was crying and screaming from an elevator. The babies had just traveled six hours by bus. Morgan was 11 months old. Sherri held a picture of her.

“When they got off the elevator, I was looking for Morgan, and I couldn’t put my eyeballs on her,” Sherri said.

The babies were taken into a hotel room to get organized.

“They literally called my name, put Morgan in my hands,” she said. “Make sure they had all 10 fingers, all 10 toes, were what we wanted. … We were supposed to change their clothes and give back their clothes to the orphanage. We went for our photo. We had to have a family photo for the documentation. Literally, this all was like in five minutes. She just was crying because she had no idea who I was.”

Morgan cried for six hours, all that afternoon.

“I tried to feed her, hugs, whatever,” Sherri said. “She finally went to sleep. She knocked herself out.”

The tears didn’t return when Morgan woke. They spent another week and a half in China to finalize legalities. Morgan was sworn in as a citizen at a U.S. embassy in Guangzhou.

They flew back to Delaware. Sherri was unsure about the future.

“To be honest, it was a financial struggle,” she said. ” I really didn’t know if I could handle it, financially and as an older mom.”

Sherri enrolled Morgan in dance classes, tee ball and soccer by age 3. But it was a mommy-and-me class at a local YMCA that led Morgan to gymnastics.

“She climbed on things,” Sherri said. A once-a-week gymnastics class was added to the schedule.

When Morgan was 5, the teacher said Morgan needed a bigger gym to meet her passion and talent for the sport.

That’s when she drove the 17 miles north from Middletown to Newark and walked through the First State Gymnastics doors. It was across the street from the rink where Morgan took ice-skating classes.

“It went from two days a week to three days a week to not wanting to do any other activities but gymnastics,” Sherri said.

“I got down to ballet and gymnastics,” Morgan said, “and I honestly never liked ballet.”

Life really changed in elementary school. Morgan got glasses at age 6 (more on that later). Slava Glazounov, a former Russian gymnast, became her coach at age 8 or 9 (and still is today).

Morgan dressed up as Nadia Comaneci and gave a book report for a third-grade class (Comaneci would later present Morgan her world all-around gold medal last year). She began home schooling in fifth or sixth grade.

Sherri drops her off at First State in the morning, works through lunch, and picks her up after work in the evening, driving 35 minutes each way.

“Her and I probably haven’t had a vacation in four or five years,” Sherri said, hoping to take one later in 2018.

In the last few years, Morgan improved to become not only a gold medalist but also the favorite of gym nerds across the country. Morgan was a gym nerd.

In 2014, she woke up at 5 a.m. to live blog Biles’ competition at the world championships in Nanning. Earlier this year, she was up at 2 a.m. to watch on a stream as a national teammate competed in Japan.

Her small stature (even for a gymnast) and, especially, the glasses endeared her even more to fans. She twice tried contacts, but they didn’t mix well with the chalky air of a gym.

“My eyes would get dry, something would get in them, and I would have to waste practice time taking them in and washing them,” Morgan said. “Glasses just was more practical. Glasses are kind of a trend now, anyways. I would never get rid of them now.”

And then there’s her other passion — Harry Potter. At the time of the interview, Morgan was beginning to re-read the seven-book series.

“My sheets are Harry Potter,” she said. Her room includes two bookshelves devoted to the series.

Morgan went into last summer, her first at the senior level, known for all of this but not yet for gold-medal-level gymnastics.

“For the longest time, I couldn’t be consistent to save my life,” she said. “I would have assignments to do five in a row, and it would take me 30 minutes to complete when it was just a handspring layout.”

At nationals, she finished sixth in the all-around still recuperating from May elbow surgery. On those results alone, Morgan might not have been selected for the four-woman world championships team.

USA Gymnastics invited 10 to its world championships selection camp a month later.

Morgan had the highest score behind closed doors and joined national champion and Olympic alternate Ragan Smith as the two all-arounders for worlds in Montreal. It would be just the third international meet of her life.

“There was no expectation,” Sherri said.

Morgan was sixth in qualifying, the lowest-ranked American woman to make an Olympic or world all-around final outright in 14 years.

On the night of the all-around final, Morgan saw Smith fall on a vault in warm-up and stay on the floor. She had to withdraw. That left Morgan as the only American in the field. The U.S. had the world’s best female gymnast each of the previous six years. It was on her to extend the streak.

“I’m not sure how Morgan was going to handle that,” Sherri said. “Whether it was going to be too stressful for her, and it was going to be not good. Or, Morgan had the tendency to be able to step up and pull it all out.”

It was the latter. Morgan came from behind in the final rotation to win by a tenth of a point.

“I definitely didn’t think I would ever win or even medal,” she said. “It was kind of a shock to make the team.”

It was true that no member of the U.S. Olympic team from Rio competed last year. And that Smith’s score from qualifying was seven tenths higher. But Morgan could control none of that. She was crowned, by Comaneci, the world’s best gymnast in 2017.

The following day, Morgan received a congratulatory tweet that meant just as much. It came from J.K. Rowling, calling her “a real life hero in glasses.”

“I stopped and started bawling,” Morgan said later. “I had tears streaming down my face.”

Sherri was in Montreal that week, watching from the seats at the 1976 Olympic Stadium. She has since noticed a new confidence in Morgan.

Her daughter won the American Cup in March, then withdrew during an April meet in Colombia after landing on her head on a balance beam dismount. She insisted in June that it was precautionary and that she was fine.

Morgan finished third behind Biles and Riley McCusker at a nationals tune-up meet three weeks ago, despite a fall on her opening balance beam routine. The spotlight is not on her in Boston this week.

“Might be a very good thing,” Sherri said. “I feel like at that point, all the pressure’s on Simone.”

Back home in Delaware, the posters and pictures and magazine spreads of Morgan remain at First State Gymnastics in Newark. In Middletown, Sherri has her own pictures of Morgan, a scrapbook from her trip to China nearly two decades ago.

“It’s all saved for her to kind of look at, which she did a lot when she was younger,” Sherri said. “She doesn’t look at it as much now, but I have it for her.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: USA Gymnastics names new women’s national team coordinator

Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
0 Comments

Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
Getty
0 Comments

Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!