Morgan Hurd looks on at the 2018 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 17, 2018 in Boston.
NEW YORK -- Maturing from an up-and-coming junior gymnast in 2016 to a five-time world championship medalist by the end of 2018 has all been a bit of a whirlwind for Morgan Hurd.
“Oh, most definitely,” the diminutive, bespectacled athlete said as she made her media rounds at the 2019 AAU Sullivan Awards, held Tuesday at the New York Athletic Club. “But I wouldn’t say my life has changed too much. I would just say my life matured with me.”
The 17-year-old from Middletown, Delaware, is getting ready to celebrate a teenager’s traditional rite of passage: graduating from high school, which she attends online via International Connections Academy. She’s a solid student, but prefers independent study to being deskbound.
“School is important but honestly, I prefer to learn outside the classroom,” Hurd said. “I prefer to go places and learn from people.”
And so, while she didn’t win the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete — that honor went to Kathryn Plummer, volleyball standout at Stanford — Hurd’s interactions with the other finalists, including a bus tour of New York City and escape room adventure, were priceless.
“Morgan lives in a bubble of gymnastics and doesn’t always get to experience those other things,” her mom, Sherri, said. “She loves to explore.”
A three-hour break in the schedule led Morgan and Sherri to the Strand Book Store, the Greenwich Village landmark that’s famous for its “18 miles of new, used and rare books.”
“They just have such unconventional books that you don’t typically see in a chain bookstore,” Morgan said. “And they have lots of little things, like pens and postcards, and … it’s great.”
Hurd isn’t the bookstore’s first gymnast fan.
“We stumbled upon (the Strand) a year or so ago,” Sherri said. “We needed to kill some time and Morgan put it out on Twitter — ‘Any good bookstores in NYC?’ Nastia (Liukin) tweeted back, ‘It’s my favorite bookstore, I used to live around the corner.’ Morgan loves bookstores, she can spend hours and hours there.”
Hurd arrived in New York hot off an all-around win at the Tokyo World Cup, where stellar bar and floor routines helped her defeat two-time Olympian Ellie Black of Canada — the same gymnast she edged out to win the all-around title at the 2017 world championships. Her performance marked a strong return following right elbow surgery in December, the third procedure she has had to remove extra cartilage.
Asked how hard it was to recuperate, Hurd just shrugged.
“Basically, I just had to get back in shape,” she said. “Obviously, it was kind of difficult, but I was almost used to it, I guess, since it was the third time. I had to build strength back up in my arm specifically, and (build) endurance.”
The only adjustment Hurd made in Tokyo were minor downgrades to her bar routine, which she plans to fix in the coming weeks.
“(Bars) is the event where you have to use all arm strength and no leg strength,” she explained. “Everywhere else, I can kind of get around that, even on beam. So, I downgraded slightly, but I’ll get back the strength for it.”
Hurd wasn’t always so even-tempered. She had good meets early in her career, but few that promised stardom. Competing as a junior, she placed eighth in the all-around at the 2015 U.S. championships, and fifth in all-around the following year.
“She was special from day one,” said Slava Glazounov, who has coached Hurd at his First State Gymnastics facility in Newark, Delaware for nearly 10 years. “She has a unique talent of listening and following directions very well. A lot of kids do their own things; she was doing what she was told to do. That’s really helped her out. She really wants it, and if you tell her to do a task she does it.”
In 2017, after placing sixth in the U.S. in all-around, Hurd was selected for the 2017 world championships in Montreal. Her surprise all-around victory there — plus a silver medal in the balance beam final — changed everything.
“I wasn’t really too known in the gymnastics world and if I was, I was known as the inconsistent one, basically,” she said. “I never really hit (my routines) in competition frequently, but then I guess something just clicked in my head and I gained a newfound confidence, especially after 2017.”
“She had to learn patience and calmness,” Glazounov said. “It wasn’t like this from the start, it came with time and experience. Each big competition, we started to understand each other a little more.”
Hurd proved she had staying power, winning all-around world bronze in 2018 behind four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles and Mai Murakami of Japan. She also won a silver medal on floor exercise behind Biles, generally considered the “G.O.A.T.” — greatest of all time.
“She has definitely pushed everyone, including myself, to (stretch) their boundaries,” Hurd said. “I mean, we all want to catch up to her, so we’re all trying to throw bigger skills, become more consistent. Everyone says we’re all basically competing for second place, but we all want to catch her. That’s the goal, I guess.”
More concrete and immediate goals are to compete for the U.S. at the Pan American Games, held July 26 through Aug. 11 in Lima, Peru, followed by the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in early October.
“I’m going right back to the gym and I’m just going to work on my endurance and strength, and cleaning up my consistency and getting my D-scores (difficulty scores) up,” she said.
Looming over all, of course, are the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Hurd loved her trip to Tokyo this month and would like nothing more than a return visit.
“Oh my God, it was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “It was so clean, everyone was so kind and accommodating and it was just amazing.”
Hurd has verbally committed to the University of Florida, deferring for one year to make her Olympic push. Under a new team format and qualification rules, the U.S. will likely bring six gymnasts to Tokyo, including a four-woman team and an additional two individual athletes. If she remains injury free, Biles can bank on a ticket. Competition for the remaining spots will be keen.
“Morgan already has all of the skills,” Glazounov said. “She needs stay calm and be confident in herself. If she believes in herself, she can do it all.”
“Every day I’m going into the gym and pushing myself harder regardless,” Hurd said. “I just want to be the absolute best that I can be.”