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

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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.”

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Red Gerard parts with gold medal (briefly) as he returns to slopestyle

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Red Gerard‘s gold medal is damaged. His desire to compete remains in tact.

“The gold medal is, honestly, not doing too good,” Gerard said in a recent interview in New York City.

The 18-year-old snowboarder then unfurled the medal from his pocket and pointed to an adorning clip.

“It took a little beating,” he said. “It broke. We’re going to get it fixed.”

Like many Rio Olympic medalists, Gerard said he planned to send his medal off for repairs. It is a historic one.

Nine months ago, the sixth of seven kids from a Colorado snowboarding family became the first American to take gold in PyeongChang. He became the youngest Olympic snowboarding champion and the youngest individual male U.S. Winter Olympic champion. Eighteen family members made their own headlines, partying at the bottom of the slopestyle course.

Gerard was an underdog in South Korea, not just in stature (not quite 5 and a half feet), but by his previous results. He had not made a podium at the X Games or U.S. Open. His two top-level wins came in California and Utah events without the top Canadians and Norwegians in the field.

Really, it was reminiscent of friend Sage Kotsenburg, whose second slopestyle win in nine years came at the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi. Kotsenburg entered seven contests in his follow-up season, according to World Snowboarding, then faded out of competition to focus on making snowboard films, ultimately announcing retirement at age 23 in 2017.

While Gerard also enjoys filming, he plans to carve a different path.

“I love doing contests,” he said, “and I love the exhilaration that you get from them.”

Gerard already competed in New Zealand in September, placing 21st in a big air event. His season begins in earnest in December with the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., then the X Games in January, world championships in Park City in February, plus the U.S. Open in Vail.

Maybe one of those days will be like the Olympics. Gerard credited his PyeongChang success to the course suiting him. He chose off-path features on the rail and jump sections that others ignored, not winning solely on the back of big tricks.

“Every contest, there’s a different person that wins, for the most part,” he said. “I’m super psyched that it just so happened for me, it was the Olympics.”

Minutes after winning in PyeongChang, Gerard said he didn’t know about 2022. He only knew that he wanted to do snowboard filming.

“I 100 percent want to go into 2022,” he said last month. “Definitely that’s on my list. But also filming is one step ahead for me right now. Filming is always something I’ve had a passion for. That’s my goal for next year, then after that I’ll go back to contests and focus more on that.”

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Ashley Wagner on competitive future, role as coach, and upcoming shows

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When Ashley Wagner finished the 2018 season, she made a promise to herself that she would live a little bit more of life. She moved across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, and while she’s still on the ice every day skating and participating in a slate of upcoming shows, she’s now added to her resume as a coach.

We caught up with the three-time national champion and World silver medalist. (Questions and answers lightly edited for clarity.)

How did you get involved in the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation show, Scott Hamilton & Friends

I have actually performed in Scott’s show a couple of times but it’s always during the Grand Prix season, so I haven’t been able to skate in it for the past few years because I needed to focus on my training. It was one of those things where I feel like he heard that I was taking the Grand Prix season off and he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to take part. It was such an easy yes. It’s a really great show. He does a fantastic job at putting together the golden era of figure skating shows. This is how figure skating shows are meant to be. You always know that you’re going to be skating in something that is quality.

The last time I spoke to Scott, he said that even though he says this every year, this show is gonna be the best ever.

I mean, yeah, ‘cause I’m skating in it! [laughing] No, it’s gonna be great. I’m really excited. He passed along my music to me and he sent me an email. He’s like, I heard this song and I thought it was just made for you right away. It’s nice to know that he goes through all of the music selections and really caters it to his show. I think that’s a detail that makes this show so much different than anything else. The music is selected for each athlete so you know that’s it’s a cohesive show. It should be great. We have a couple Olympic medalists. This is the best show you’re gonna see, no joke.

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Working on something new today!🎵🎶

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What’s different about skating to live music compared to a track?

Live music is a lot harder to skate to because you can have an artist up on the stage and maybe they’re feeling a note and you’re in a spiral. All of a sudden you’re like, okay you need to end this note! You’re singing it a lot longer than I’m used to! There are a lot more variables.

It’s like watching skating live versus watching it on TV. When you’re in the arena and the skater is in front of you, you can feel the emotion and the energy that they’re putting out in a performance. I think that skating to live music, you get that same kind of sense. You really get to experience all of the heart that a performer is putting into their music. And that combined with live skating I think it just makes for such a magical recipe. You just really get to experience skating, and experience the music.

How’s life in Boston?

I love it here! This was the best decision that I could’ve made. I’m so happy here. I promised myself after 2018 that I was going to give myself the opportunity to live a little bit of life. I’m still on the ice and skating every single day. But this city just has so much to offer and I feel like I’m really getting to experience a lot more than I was able to in LA. I’m so happy here.

Have you caught yourself adopting any of your coach Rafael Arutunian’s mannerisms when you’re coaching?

Raf is such a loud coach, and he gets away with it because he’s a big Russian man. But as soon as I raise my voice I look ridiculous. It’s been a balance, because it’s a different level of skating here than I’m used to. I’m used to professional, high-level skating and coming here it’s a bunch of kids who are on their way up. Which is really exciting, but it’s definitely been an adjustment for me just to kind of reel back a little bit and not turn into Rafael.

It’s a different phase in their careers.

Exactly. They’re not quite at the level where I can just scream at them to skate a long program. Because they’re 12 years old and I can’t scream at kids.

And they have parents.

And parents! I have to deal with parents. That’s the scariest part of figure skating. I haven’t had to deal with parents since I was 18. That’s been a big change for me.

You did some commentary work for NHK Trophy in Japan. How was that?

It was so much fun and also terrifying. The first event that I covered was the pairs’ short program, so it was definitely a sink or swim moment. I think pairs skating is like the moon. I don’t understand it. It’s so different from anything that I do in my skating life. It was terrifying. I spent the first warm up in a blackout. And then finally was like, ‘okay, I can do this!’ I’m really glad that I got to see what it’s like on the other side. It’s way harder than it sounds.

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Adulting with Andrea

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Did you have a lot of homework?

I did. It was tough because I didn’t really know what I was walking into. I was working with Andrea Joyce so it was like how communication was gonna go, what her role was going to be, what I was responsible for. Once I experienced that I knew how to prepare myself a lot more.

You already mentioned you’re taking the Grand Prix season off. Can you say anything else about your competitive future?

Right now, to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what I want to do. Watching the ladies’ event [at NHK Trophy] in Japan, it was one of those situations where definitely maybe take a step back and think, okay, in order to even be competitive on the scene right now, you need to be throwing out technically perfect programs with two triple-triples, and if you’re not even thinking about a triple Axel, then maybe you should step aside.

It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s best to just take a step back and let skating progress the way it’s going to. I watched Carolina Kostner and what she was able to do toward the later part of her career and I really admire that. I think that there’s something to be said about coming out and putting out quality and still being able to perform that doesn’t entirely write off someone who’s not trying the technically most difficult program. But it’s a lot of work. It’s one of those things where I have to start considering whether or not it’s worth it.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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