Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
Leave a comment

Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

MORE: Orser reacts to Medvedeva’s coaching switch back to Moscow

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!