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As Simone Biles eyes farewell, Olympic gymnastics picture jumbles

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When Simone Biles decided to come back for a second Olympic run, she could not have envisioned this kind of history: Biles, if she makes the Tokyo Olympic team, will become the second U.S. female gymnast in the last 50 years to span eight years competing at the highest international level.

Biles, who won her first world all-around title in 2013, would join Dominique Dawes, an Olympian in 1992, 1996 and 2000.

“Mentally, going another year, I think that’s what going to take a toll,” Biles, expected to retire after Tokyo, said on TODAY two weeks ago.

Had the Olympics been held this summer, Biles, 23, would have still bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic female gymnast since 2004, and the oldest U.S. Olympic female gymnast to ever win a gold medal. Those feats, if accomplished in 2021, will have been even harder earned given the current circumstances.

“You’re working against time, your body, your mind, a growing phase, so many different things,” NBC Olympics analyst Nastia Liukin said. “So it’s definitely scary, I think, for a lot of those that were vying for a spot on the team to rethink and wonder, where am I going to be in a year?”

One month ago, before sports were halted indefinitely, the U.S. Olympic team situation was this: Biles an overwhelming favorite to clinch one of the four team-event spots at June’s Olympic Trials. Another 10 or so women in the mix for the other three spots.

After Biles, the next name mentioned has to be Sunisa Lee. The 17-year-old from Minnesota was runner-up to Biles in her senior nationals debut last August. She then joined Biles in the world championships all-around in October, placing eighth, though she would have earned a medal if not for an uncharacteristic fall off her best apparatus, the uneven bars.

“If [Lee] has a year coming up like she had last year, then she’s going to be hard-pressed to not make that Olympic team,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said.

Decisions in the last week altered the picture. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) ruled that the most recent international Olympic qualifying competition in March, which was halted between qualifying and finals, will have those qualifying scores count as final results.

If nothing else changes, that means that Jade Carey became the first American gymnast to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics — in individual events, but not as part of the four-woman team-event roster. One more American woman can be named to the Olympics in individual events only apart from the four-woman team.

Also, the federation made a ruling on age minimums that led the gymnastics community to believe that current 15-year-olds, who would be too young for a 2020 Olympics, were made eligible for 2021.

At least one gymnast who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic women’s teams. Konnor McClain and Skye Blakely, second and fourth at last year’s junior nationals, just entered the already crowded picture for Olympic team spots.

Older gymnasts in contention include: Morgan Hurd, who won the world all-around title during Biles’ one-year break in 2017. Hurd did not make the six-woman world championships team last year but rebounded to win the American Cup last month.

MyKayla Skinner, a Rio Olympic alternate looking to become the first U.S. female gymnast with NCAA experience to make an Olympic team since Brown’s Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

Kayla DiCello, last year’s junior national champion who impressed enough there and at national team camps to be named, along with Hurd, to the American Cup.

And Kara Eaker and Grace McCallum, the two women other than Biles to compete for the U.S. at each of the last two world championships.

“There are going to be four athletes [who don’t make the team], at least, that anywhere else in the world will win an Olympic medal,” Daggett said.

A variable brought by the coronavirus pandemic: Some athletes still have gym time. Biles tweeted Thursday that she has not been training. Others around the world have home set-ups, equipment included.

“That’s the biggest piece of concern for a lot of people,” Liukin said. “I don’t think I ever took more than a long weekend off. That’s scary. It’s scary to think that you could possibly be going months without doing gymnastics on the equipment, and then wondering how long is it going to take for me to get back to where I was before all this happened.”

Many of the top U.S. men often work out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, but that was shut down last month. How will it affect Sam Mikulak, bidding to become the fist U.S. male gymnast to span nine or more years among Olympic appearances since 1948? Or Yul Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. all-around champion who battled injuries the last two years (and recently started training on a pommel horse in a garage).

The biggest name in men’s gymnastics is Kohei Uchimura, the eight-time Olympic or world all-around champion from Japan. Uchimura fought injuries every year of this Olympic cycle to hang on for 2020. His finish line just extended another year.

“For guys that are older and have been sidelined for a longer period of time, coming back from injuries, I think it’s going to be harder for them,” Daggett said. “[Uchimura] may come out of this better, but I would say that the odds are against that. He had a long period of time to figure out what his plan was. They had already taken the time off that they needed to address some of those physical issues. Now, it’s a very long road again.”

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Morgan Hurd wins American Cup, signals gymnastics rebound

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Morgan Hurd returned from missing the 2019 World Championships to win the American Cup. She will like this history: Every female gymnast to win the American Cup in an Olympic year went on to make the Olympic team.

Sam Mikulak, a two-time U.S. Olympian and six-time national all-around champion, won the men’s competition.

Hurd, the 2017 World all-around champion during Simone Biles‘ break, totaled 55.832 points to prevail by seven tenths over fellow American Kayla DiCello in Milwaukee. The one-day competition lacked Biles and the other all-around medalists from worlds in October.

Hurd had no falls across four routines and few significant errors. The last time a non-U.S. woman won the American Cup was in 2001. Full results are here.

“The message I guess I’m sending myself and the world is just, it’s not over until it’s over,” she told Andrea Joyce on NBC. “I feel at my greatest I’ve ever been.”

In the last 18 months, Hurd went from the best U.S. gymnast outside Biles to being left off the 2019 World team of six. She was fourth at the 2019 U.S. Championships and ninth at a later world team selection camp.

Hurd previously won the American Cup, the U.S.’ most prestigious annual international meet, in 2018. Other winners in Olympic years included Nadia ComaneciMary Lou RettonCarly PattersonNastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas.

“This was a watershed for [Hurd],” said Tom Forster, the U.S. national women’s team coordinator. “This was her opportunity to state who she is as an athlete, not to be ignored. I think she felt ignored for not making the world team.

“You never know how the athletes are going to handle that. Some get really sad and it kind of crumbles their self-confidence. Others get mad and do something about it. That’s what you hope for, and that’s exactly what she did. She made a statement.”

DiCello, a Maryland high school sophomore, was similarly clean to Hurd in her senior debut. DiCello won last year’s U.S. junior title, making her an Olympic team contender. At least one woman who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 Olympic teams. DiCello, by being selected for American Cup, became likeliest to extend that streak.

The U.S. Olympic team of four, plus two gymnasts in individual events only, will be named after June’s Olympic Trials. Jade Carey has all but wrapped up one of the individual spots.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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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