By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 10, 2019, 1:49 a.m. (ET)
(L-R) Kara Eaker, Aleah Finnegan, Morgan Hurd, Riley McCusker and Leanne Wong stand on the podium at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on July 27, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Morgan Hurd doesn’t spend much time at home these days.

Arriving in Louisville last month with an open itinerary, Hurd was one five American gymnasts who competed July 20 at the U.S. Classic and left July 22 to Lima, Peru, where the quintet made up the U.S. women’s artistic team at the Pan American Games July 27-30.

Only nine days after wrapping up in the Southern Hemisphere, the five were on the competition podium again on Friday, this time in Kansas City, Missouri, for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.

That left, by Hurd’s count, four nights in the past three weeks that she got to sleep in her own bed.

The sequence is unusual in elite gymnastics.

Typically gymnasts at this level have weeks to tinker their routines for a big competition.

Instead, Hurd and Kara Eaker, Aleah Finnegan, Riley McCusker and Leanne Wong went from Kentucky to trading pins in the athlete’s village in Peru and back to Missouri for the biggest domestic competition of the year in a matter of days.

And, oh yeah, they cleaned up in South America, winning the team gold medal plus six more individual medals.

That they didn’t have the usual pre-nationals prep?

Totally worth it.

“It was amazing, it was probably the best experience I’ve ever had in my whole career,” said Hurd, who notably has competed twice at the world championships and was the world all-around champion in 2017.

The Pan American Games, which are still continuing through this weekend, is a quadrennial multi-sport event for athletes from the Americas. The Pan Am Games, perhaps not coincidentally, have some notable similarities to another multi-sport event all five gymnasts have their eyes on for next year.

“Everyone kept saying it felt like a mini Olympics, and it really did,” McCusker said. “There were so many other athletes there from all different sports coming to represent the United States, and it was such a cool feeling to be out there in a huge international stage. It’s just so different from anything else that I’ve experienced.”

Though they’re most eager to talk about the pin trading — “Oh I have so many,” Hurd boasted, “I got Brazil, I got like five Peru ones, Mexico, Barbados, it was really cool” — the Pan Am Games also provided some more practical experience, such as living in an athlete’s village and adapting to unfamiliar conditions.

“Going out of country and going on different equipment is a totally different feel than being in your home country with your own crowd,” said McCusker, who led the Pan Ams team with three individual medals, including the all-around silver. “It’s just a great way to get out of the country, especially (with what’s) coming up next year when you want to get out of the country more for international assignments.”

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The drawback, of course, was that the five gymnasts who competed in Lima came into nationals without the same preparation as their peers. McCusker, whose workload in Peru included two all-arounds and three event finals, said she practiced just twice at her home gym between Pan Ams and nationals and didn’t attempt certain upgrades, such as a double layout on floor exercise, that she likely would have had she stayed home.

The gymnasts also had to prepare somewhat on the fly, as eight gymnasts went into the U.S. Classic hoping to make the Pan Am team, knowing only five would get the call.

Recognizing the uniqueness of the situation, USA Gymnastics Women’s High-Performance Team Coordinator Tom Forster took some pressure off the Pan Am team, saying before the national championships that he intended to invite all five to the September selection camp, where the world championships team is named, regardless of how they perform in Kansas City.

That proved prescient.

Eaker, Hurd and McCusker are all proven gymnasts, having helped the U.S. win the world team title last year in Qatar, while Hurd also won two individual medals. Wong, in her first year at the senior level, won the American Cup this past March, while Finnegan is another touted up-and-comer.

All five indeed displayed signs of rust on Friday, ranging from shaky technique to outright falls.

McCusker showed best, posting an all-around score of 55.700 to rank fourth on the night, though she lost momentum and had to drop off the uneven bars in her final routine, and ultimately finished well off the 57.900 she scored while finishing second at the U.S. Classic.

Hurd and Eaker each had major deductions to finish well below their standards, too. Ultimately, Wong tied for fifth (55.400), while Hurd was eighth (55.050), Eaker was 11th (54.650) and Finnegan, who had to miss the event finals in Peru due to a concussion, was 14th (53.250).

To no one’s surprise, Simone Biles, the 2016 Olympic and four-time world all-around champion — and who elected not to compete for a spot at the Pan Am Games — easily outpaced the field at 58.650.

All have one more opportunity to perform in Kansas City, as Friday’s scores will be combined with another round on Sunday to determine the national champions. From there, at least eight gymnasts will move on to the world ream selection camp Sept. 21-26 in Sarasota, Florida, and five will ultimately go to the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany.

Friday might not have gone as well as the Pan Am gymnasts had hoped, but with their world championships hopes still fully intact, no one is looking back at their decision to go to Peru.

“It exceeded my expectations,” Hurd said. “It was so much fun.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.