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

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.”

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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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