(L-R) Ragan Smith, Morgan Hurd, Simone Biles, Kara Eaker, Riley McCusker and Grace McCallum pose for a photo at podium training at Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 23, 2018 in Doha, Qatar.
Recent history shows that any time the United States takes on the world in women’s gymnastics, the Americans will be heavily favored to win.
That’ll certainly be the case again this year when the U.S. women take the podium at the world championships, which run Oct. 25-Nov. 3 in Doha, Qatar. The five-woman team has star power, balance and veteran experience as it goes for a seventh consecutive global team title, which includes four at the world championships in addition to the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals.
The five-person roster features the defending world all-around champion in Morgan Hurd. The team also includes Riley McCusker, another strong all-arounder who was limited by injuries last season, plus up-and-comer Grace McCallum and balance beam dynamo Kara Eaker. The alternate is 2017 U.S. champion and 2016 Olympic alternate Ragan Smith, who was many observers’ pick to win last year’s world title before being injured.
And, oh yes, there’s also Simone Biles.
The best gymnast in the world returned to competition this year following a post-Rio break in 2017. She’ll be going for her fourth world all-around title, and there’s nothing to suggest she won’t be able to accomplish that goal easily.
Biles, now 21, returned to competition this summer and was already competing more difficult routines than the ones that led her to a historic four gold medals and a bronze in Rio. Those routines resulted in her sweeping all five national titles in August.
“She’s really the epitome of what coaches talk about in every sport, and that’s having an athlete that’s very focused, works really hard, has natural ability and good technique,” said Tom Forster, high-performance team coordinator at USA Gymnastics. “It’s uncommon to get all those attributes together in one person in any sport in life. When you do, you get Simone.”
Biles in 2015 became the first woman to win three world all-around titles in a row, and a fourth win would give her more than any woman in the history of the sport, breaking her tie with Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina.
Biles’ impact extends beyond the score card as well. In a sport where many top competitors are teenagers, the Spring, Texas, native brings unique experience to the squad, having competed in three previous world championships in addition to the Rio Games. Though the U.S. roster has a range of experience.
Hurd, competing in her first year as a senior, stepped up to win the world all-around title in 2017, while also finishing second in the balance beam competition. Now 17, she finished second to Biles at nationals.
The 17-year-old McCusker, who was third at nationals, will make her world championships debut, as would McCallum and Eaker. The latter two are both 15 and competing in their first year at the senior level.
“It’s a different group of girls, and they’re all up and coming and trying to make names for themselves so that’s really exciting,” Biles said. “Here I am a veteran, so I’m excited to go out and lead them and hopefully make them excited about performing at their first worlds for some of them.”
To hear her teammates speak, Biles has already done that.
“I love Simone, and it’s great to have her back,” said Smith, who has made strides since competing with broken toes and lingering ankle pain at nationals. “She makes me strive for better, so it’s nice to have her back in the picture. It’s kind of like it was in 2016.”
While Biles’ return boosts the team’s chances for a fifth consecutive world title, it also raises the stakes for the individuals. Four gymnasts compete on each apparatus in the qualifying round, but only two per country can move on to the individual event finals.
With as many as five gymnasts who could claim legitimate medal chances in the all-around, that could leave a situation similar to that at the Rio Games, where defending gold medalist Gabby Douglas had the third best all-around score in qualifying but missed finals because her teammates had the top two spots.
Biles, Hurd and McCusker will compete all four events in qualification.
The deep U.S. team could face a similar logjam in the individual event finals, too, especially after Biles won uneven bars at nationals. That’s the one apparatus on which she hasn’t won an Olympic or world medal, and she said she’s aiming to make that event final for the first time in Doha.
Expectations are even higher for Biles in the other three events, and especially on vault—an event she won in Rio but, unbelievably, hasn’t won at the world championships. That could change in a big way after she debuted a new vault at the world team selection camp this month that left even those used to watching her do what no one else can shaking their heads. If she performs it in Doha, the vault will then officially bear her name.
But Biles is hardly alone as an individual medal contender on the U.S. team. Hurd is a returning medalist on balance beam, while Eaker has made her case as one of the best in the world through her performances at nationals and the selection camp.
On uneven bars, McCusker could be Team USA’s top individual medal hope. The U.S. depth behind Biles on floor and vault is thinner, though event finals can be unpredictable, and the Americans have traditionally been strong on those apparatuses.
One medal the U.S. will be heavily favored to win, however, is the team gold. Team USA has won every world or Olympic team gold medal since 2011 (world team titles are not awarded in years following an Olympics). This year has added motivation, as the top three teams earn qualification to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, although the individual gymnasts on the team wouldn’t be named until that summer.