Riley McCusker in action on the uneven bars during the 2019 Gymnastics World Cup on March 23, 2019 in Birmingham, England.
The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are just a year away, and the stakes are high for gymnasts competing at the 2019 GK U.S. Classic, held in Louisville, Kentucky, this week. A powerhouse field led by reigning Olympic all-around champion Simone Biles will look to impress officials and judges by laying down consistent routines, with a few skill upgrades added for good measure.
The U.S. Classic is the final opportunity for female gymnasts to qualify for the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships, as well as the final selection event for the U.S. women’s team that will compete in the Pan American Games Lima 2019, July 24-Aug. 11, in Lima, Peru. Eight athletes competing in Louisville — 2018 world gold-medal team members Kara Eaker, Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker; and Sloane Blakely, Shilese Jones, Sunisa Lee and Leanne Wong — are under consideration for the five-woman squad.
With the U.S. Gymnastics Championships beginning in Kansas City, Missouri, on Aug. 8, competing three major events in less than a month is ambitious. Still, in a media teleconference last week, both Hurd and McCusker told reporters they were up to the task.
“If I make the Pan Am team, I definitely will go,” Hurd said. “This has been a goal for me all year long. I’m very certain we will get home (in time) for the U.S. championships, so I will be competing.”
McCusker is anxious to add to her international experience; she has competed abroad just four times. At her most recent international, the world cup in Birmingham, England, in March, she placed second to Russia’s seven-time Olympic medalist Aliya Mustafina.
Maggie Haney, who trains McCusker at MG Elite Gymnastics in Monmouth, New Jersey, supported her athlete’s decision, but acknowledged the grueling schedule.
“I kind of thought, ‘Let’s see where we stand, and maybe staying home (from the Pan Am Games) and training might be the better option,’” Haney said. “But Riley likes to meet the other girls, meet other athletes from other sports. The way she’s looking at it is this is her last year to do elite gymnastics. After 2020, she’s going on to college (at the University of Florida). Basically, she wants to get all of the experience she can.”
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And what about the U.S. championships, which begin just after gymnastics ends at the Pan Am Games?
“I’ll see how my body is holding up, and if I compete all four events, or just two events,” McCusker, who is strongest on uneven bars and beam, said. “I definitely want to be there and compete.”
“When Riley comes back (from the Pan Am Games), if she’s still feeling good physically and is not too mentally tired, the goal is to go to U.S. championships and maybe not do everything — maybe not do the leg events (vault and floor) — but to be there,” Haney said. “It’s good for her to spend time with her friends and other members of the national team. Then we’ll take a little break, let her body rest and then ramp back up for world team selection camp.”
The 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships will be held in Stuttgart, Germany, from Oct. 4-13, with selections taking place in September. McCusker hopes some upgrades, which she will show in Louisville this week, will help her make a second world team.
“For U.S. Classic, I’m adding a few upgrades on floor and beam,” she said. “On floor, I’m adding a double layout back in, and will move my full-in (a full-twisting double back flip with the twist happening in the first flip) to the third pass. On beam, I’m adding a new flight series, which is going to be a layout to two feet.”
“It’s a stepping stone to the Pan Am Games, I feel like it’s kind of a warm-up to that,” McCusker added. “You definitely want to look good in all your routines so you can be ready for what comes after.”
When a reporter asked Hurd if she was planning to unveil any upgrades in Kansas City, the 2017 world all-around champion just laughed.
“That’s a secret,” she said. “You’re going to have to wait and see.”
“My goal going into U.S. Classic is to hit all four routines nice and cleanly, and hopefully make the Pan Am team,” she added. “I’m focusing on finalizing my routines, taking things out, putting things in, getting comfortable with everything.”
Like McCusker, Hurd doesn’t foresee much trouble with the back-to-back event scheduling.
“I’ve been at the senior level a few years now and I understand my body,” she said, adding that she and longtime coach Slava Glazounov, “know when it’s time to take a step back. … I want to get as much international experience as possible.”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.