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

Marvel superheroes inspire Bradie Tennell, Starr Andrews

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Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews have something in common beyond their obvious figure skating talents: both skaters look to Marvel superheroes for inspiration.

The 20-year-old Tennell, who opened her 2018-19 international season with a big win over two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at the Autumn International Classic in Oakville, Ontario, counts Iron Man and Spider-Man as her favorites.

Believe it or not, Iron Man – also known as Tony Stark – figures into Tennell’s free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“After I land the triple salchow toward the end of my program, I go down on one knee and do what I call my Iron Man pose, because that’s what Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) does in the first Avengers movie,” she said.

Summoning superhuman strength worked. Tennell had a personal-best free skate in Oakville. But in other ways, she’s the opposite of her hero: Iron Man survives his adventures largely be wearing a special suit of armor, while Tennell is all about dropping her guard this season and being more expressive on the ice.

“I believe in myself a lot more,” she said. “I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Andrews, 17, is inspired by the noble and determined Black Panther, depicted in the 2018 film by Chadwick Boseman.

“There is always a challenge and you always have to fight to get what you want,” she said.

“I wanted something different this year, I definitely wanted no lyrics, and an African theme,” she added. “When I watched Black Panther, I said, ‘Yeah, I want something like (the music in) this’ and Derrick (Delmore) pulled up some music.”

Delmore, who coaches Andrews in Los Angeles, wracked his brain to find the right material. Ultimately, he choreographed her free to a medley he calls “African Tribal Xotica.”

“The music is from five different things,” he said. “She saw the movie, loved it, and sent me some music from that movie she cut herself that I didn’t love. She was inspired to do something in that genre. I finally thought of music I used a few years back for another skater, and I played it for her, and as soon as it came on she said, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’”

What Andrews wants now is a triple axel. She attempted the three-and-a-half revolution jump in her free skate in Oakville, but it was downgraded (judged short of rotation) by the technical panel. Still, she placed a respectable seventh in a tough international field.

“I’m excited for the day I get it,” Andrews said. “I just have to keep working on it. One day I will land it and will be super-confident and happy.  It’s not new to me, I’ve been working on it for a while. That little extra effort, and then I’ll land it.”

Only two other senior U.S. ladies – Tonya Harding, back in the early 1990s, and Mirai Nagasu at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February – have landed the jump in international competition, but Andrews believes it is becoming almost commonplace.  While Tennell and Andrews were competing in Oakville, Japanese teenager Rika Kihira landed two triple axels, including one in combination with a triple toe, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy.

“There are so many more people doing it know. I feel like it’s not surprising for women to do it,” Andrews said. “They are doing it in junior and even in advanced novice, like Alysa Liu (at the Asian Open), which was amazing.”

Delmore supports his student’s ambition, with a few caveats.

“Right now, I want her to get used to doing the axel,” he said. “I want it to be a regular part of her competitive experience, so she knows how to keep going when it doesn’t go well, and hopefully when she gets it, she knows what it’s like to have that amazing moment and to keep going.”

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

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Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic

Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

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