Morgan Hurd looks to regain momentum at gymnastics’ American Cup

Morgan Hurd
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Morgan Hurd smiles while talking about her most disappointing moment in gymnastics. It’s the 18-year-old’s way of deflecting the pain — more mental than physical — that was tough to shake after she failed to make the 2019 world championship team.

A shaky first day at the selection camp last October left her scrambling. She never caught up. When the six-woman team was announced, and Hurd found herself named as a non-traveling alternate, she couldn’t get home to Delaware fast enough.

“My coach was like, ‘We need to leave,’ and I was like, ‘All right,’” Hurd says, before adding with a laugh, “And then, this was after my breakdown of course.”

She’s kidding. But only a little. A busy summer that included competing three times in less than a month — a massive workload at the sport’s top level — had left her drained. Yet during the selection camp she had recovered, which made missing the cut only more difficult.

“I was coming back into peak shape, and for that to just kind of go down the drain and not used was really heartbreaking for me,” Hurd said.

The 2017 World all-around champion briefly shut down in the aftermath. Her seemingly boundless energy vanished. She wasn’t injured. She was devastated, the symptoms manifesting themselves when she returned to training.

“My whole body just kind of felt like fatigued and it just didn’t want to do anything,” she said. “Like my whole body just felt lethargic and heavy and it was so hard to just like do basic things.”

Not so much anymore. Hurd pulled herself out of the funk by Thanksgiving, pushed by the upgrades coach Slava Glazounov challenged her to incorporate into her routines, routines she’s eager to show off in Milwaukee on Saturday at the American Cup (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

The invitational is the first high-profile event leading to the Olympics, a chance for Hurd to regain some of the swagger she lost during the hectic summer of 2019.

Looking back, Hurd has no regrets. The opportunity to compete at the Pan American Games in Peru — which happened between the U.S. Classic in late July and the U.S. Championships in mid-August — was too good to pass up.

“The experience was one that comes around once every four years,” Hurd said. “I had so much fun even though honestly I didn’t do my greatest, I wish I did better but the whole experience as a whole was great for me.”

Hurd helped the Americans win a team gold medal, but she didn’t compete in an any of the event finals thanks to international rules that only allow the top two qualifiers from a country to advance.

Things didn’t go much better at the U.S. Championships a week later. A miscue on floor during the first day dropped her well off the pace in the all-around, though she did recover to finish fourth, earning a silver on uneven bars in the process.

It was good. Just not quite good enough for Hurd, a perfectionist who admits she’s never quite satisfied even if she’s one of only two active women’s gymnasts on the planet not named Simone Biles with a world all-around gold medal in her trophy case.

Ask Hurd what inspires her on those days when she doesn’t feel like going to the gym, and her answer is remarkably self aware.

“The fear of letting people down,” she said. “Because I’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, I just want to lay in bed right now.’ But then I’m like, ‘I don’t want to disappoint Slava by not coming to practice.’ And then I think, ‘Oh, karma, I missed that one practice, that’s why you’re not on the Olympic team.’ So it’s fear that drives me I guess. That sounds so bad.”

Hurd insists that it’s not. It’s just the way she’s wired. This is the same athlete who used to cut in line during practices at First State Gymnastics in Newark, Del., if her teammates aren’t working at a pace that suited her. That same passion hasn’t dissipated. If anything, it has deepened.

Regardless of whether or not she makes the Olympic team, Hurd has already deferred the start of her college career — she’s committed to Florida — until January 2022 because she wants to make a run at the 2021 World Championships.

It’s something Glazounov brought up last year, dropping occasional hints as a way of stirring the fiery competitor within Hurd, who delights in confounding expectations.

When someone on Twitter pointed out Hurd was tied with 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross for the seventh-most world championship medals (five) by an American woman, it was all the motivation she needed.

“I want to climb those ranks,” she said.

A hopefully busy 2020, however, awaits. With her trademark glasses and 4-foot-9 frame, Hurd gets that she doesn’t look like one of the world’s top athletes. She jokes that because of her height she might get into acrobatic gymnastics once her artistic career is over.

That’s for down the road. For now there is the pursuit of an Olympic spot, one being chronicled as part of an intimate documentary series on the difficulty of reaching Tokyo. It can get kind of uncomfortable having cameras around, but Hurd is getting used to it. The last six months have been difficult at times, but in a way, maybe it’s just setting the stage for story of redemption.

“That’s it,” she said with a laugh. “All this is for the show.”

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MORE: Kayla DiCello, debuting at American Cup, eyes junior-to-Olympics jump

Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself — and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ’Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.′ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy — she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check — she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now — is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph.

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”

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Matt Weston, Susanne Kreher win first world skeleton titles; Olympic champs struggle

Matt Weston
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Great Britain’s Matt Weston and German Susanne Kreher consolidated breakout post-Olympic seasons by winning world skeleton titles in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Friday.

Weston, 15th at last year’s Olympics, prevailed by 1.79 seconds combining times from four runs, the largest margin of victory at worlds for men or women since 2012.

Weston became the second British man to win a world skeleton title after Kristan Bromley in 2008. The 25-year-old from Surrey left taekwondo at age 17 due to a reported back injury and has three wins in six World Cups this season after considering quitting the sport over the summer, according to the BBC.

“What happened there [at Beijing 2022] hit us all really hard, and it took a while to get over,” he said, speaking of the whole British skeleton team that had no top-10 finishes after medals in the last five Olympics, according to the BBC.

Italian Amedeo Bagnis, whose best World Cup finish is eighth, took silver, a year after placing 11th at the Olympics. South Korean Jeong Seung-Gi earned bronze by one hundredth over Brit Chris Thompson, a year after placing 10th at the Olympics.

Kreher, a 24-year-old sprint convert in her first full World Cup season, won by one hundredth of a second over Olympic bronze medalist Kimberley Bos of the Netherlands. Mimi Rahneva took bronze for Canada’s first Olympic or world skeleton medal since 2015.

Kreher extended Germany’s streak to six consecutive women’s world titles. Kreher, last year’s world junior champion, has three World Cup podiums this season, but no wins on the circuit.

Germany’s reigning Olympic champions Christopher Grotheer and Hannah Neise were 10th and 15th, respectively. Tina Hermann, who won the last three women’s world titles, was fifth.

Two other Olympic champions were absent: 2014 gold medalist Aleksandr Tretiyakov is out due to the ban on Russians for the war in Ukraine. Yun Sung-Bin, a 2018 gold medalist, is taking this season off but is expected to come back, according to the South Korean federation.

The top Americans were Hallie Clarke in 10th for the women and Austin Florian in 19th for the men. The last U.S. medalist at worlds was Noelle Pikus-Pace, who took silver in 2013.

Katie Uhlaender, the top U.S. finisher at the last worlds and last Olympics (sixth both times), has not competed this season after rupturing a tendon in her right ankle two months ago.

Worlds continue with the women’s monobob and two-man bobsled events Saturday and Sunday.

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