Riley McCusker competes on the balance beam at the 2018 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 17, 2018 in Boston.
BOSTON -- Simone Biles is good, and she’s not the only one.
Sure, Biles has 10 world titles, four Olympic gold medals and, on Sunday, swept all five national titles at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
And sure, her 6.55-point margin of victory this weekend in Boston is the equivalent of an extra half-event score.
Make no mistake, though, the gap is hardly due to inferior competition.
Morgan Hurd, the defending world all-around champion, finished second with 113.300 points. Riley McCusker, back from an injury-plagued 2017, followed with 112.750 points. And Jade Carey, last year’s world silver medalist on floor exercise and vault, is now an all-arounder, and she finished sixth with 109.700 points.
Don’t forget Ragan Smith, either. The 2016 Olympic alternate and 2017 U.S. champ powered through eight routines in Boston on an injured ankle and multiple broken toes, her 10th-place finish not being indicative of her full potential.
The U.S. will have its choice of these gymnasts and more for the five-woman team that competes at the world championships, which begin Oct. 25 in Doha, Qatar. After the individual world championships in 2017, this year’s event features a team competition. Meanwhile, two gymnasts per country can qualify for each event final.
“We have so much depth you could literally take anyone and it would be a fantastic team,” Hurd said.
The team will be named on Oct. 13, following a training camp in Florida.
Biles, whose post-Olympic break ended just last November, is already performing more difficult routines than those that led her to five medals, four of them gold, in Rio. With notable improvement in her uneven bars, she became the first U.S. woman since 1994 to sweep the national titles, and it’s conceivable the 21-year-old could win every event in Doha, too.
The next step for the U.S. team is figuring out how to use those other four spots. Biles and Hurd, as the top two all-around finishers at nationals, automatically qualify for the world selection camp.
“And it’d be silly to think they don’t make it (to Doha),” said Tom Forster, the U.S. women’s high-performance team coordinator.
After struggling in her first senior national championships last year, Hurd regained her form at the selection camp, made the world team and then seized her opportunity by winning the all-around gold medal.
Dressed in a sharp black leotard with sparkly silver pinstripes on Sunday, she hit her routines with the confidence of the defending world champ.
“I’m basically 100-percent better, not even just my gymnastics; I just feel like my confidence and my execution is way better than last year,” said Hurd, now 17. “I just feel so much better about myself and my gymnastics.”
She attributes that improvement to her stepped up commitment, including outside of the gym where she compliments her traditional workouts with hot yoga and, in one case, even practicing just the facial expressions for her floor routine.
“I went through my whole routine in the mirror to make sure I didn’t look really stupid or anything,” she said.
McCusker’s trajectory is also on the upswing. The 17-year-old had to withdraw from world championships consideration last year due to injury, but she put up strong performances at last month’s U.S. Classic, where she finished second to Biles, and again at nationals. Admitting she was nervous and a little tight on Thursday, McCusker came out with more confidence on Sunday and upped her all-around score by 0.65 while also finishing second on uneven bars.
“I feel great right now,” she said. “I’m excited to be going into the rest of the season.”
Carey, who went from the junior Olympic level to the world championships podium over the course of one year, finished nationals second on floor and had the sixth-best single vault score. With all-around skills being emphasized more in the new 2020 Olympic format, however, the 18-year-old added uneven bars this year so she could compete all four.
“That’s something that I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it on my own in the all-around.”
Smith, meanwhile, will aim to replicate Hurd’s journey from 2017 by coming back from a difficult national championships to make the world team through a strong performance at the selection camp.
“She has world-class and Olympic-alternate-type experience, I mean she’s one of the more experienced gymnasts,” Forster said. “The selection camp isn’t for quite a while, so I think yeah, she looks good.”
Other names to watch going into the selection camp include Grace McCallum and Shilese Jones, who finished fourth and fifth in the all-around, as well as Kara Eaker, who finished second on balance beam.
Emma Malabuyo is another possibility. The first-year senior, who last year was the U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, was a late scratch for nationals due to injury, but she said she hopes to prove herself at the September and October training camps.
Regardless of who makes the squad, the U.S. will go to Doha as the favorite to win its sixth consecutive team title in Olympic or world championships competition.
Just don’t ask Forster to compare the current group to the previous one.
“I think it’s unfair to compare the 2018 team to the 2016 team, because the girls right behind Simone, they don’t have the experience yet that that team in 2016 had,” he said. “I mean you had two returning Olympians (in Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman), so we’re not quite there in the experience part, but the potential is fantastic.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.