Opinion: Gymnast Morgan Hurd makes strong case for Tokyo Olympics with win at American Cup

MILWAUKEE — Morgan Hurd boosted her own Olympic hopes and, in the process, those of another American.

The 2017 world champion returned to competition with a vengeance Saturday, winning at American Cup six months after she was left off the U.S. team for the world championships. Her performance, coupled with what is sure to be a win by Simone Biles at a World Cup event in Tokyo next month, all but assures the Americans of being able to send an additional gymnast to the Summer Games.

“This is definitely a reward,” Hurd said. “I know that it all wasn’t for nothing.”

The International Gymnastics Federation, in its infinite wisdom, decided to shrink teams for the Tokyo Olympics from five people to four. It then took the leftover spots and created what it thought would be additional qualifying opportunities for gymnasts from smaller countries through the World Cup series.

Instead, countries like the United States saw it as a golden opportunity to bring two more gymnasts. The two can’t participate in the team competition, but they will count toward the overall medal haul.

“I don’t think it makes a difference how our team will perform,” national team coordinator Tom Forster said. “But if there’s a chance to get six Americans in the Olympics, we want six Americans in the Olympics.”

Morgan Hurd performs her floor exercise Saturday at The American Cup. (Photo: Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK)

The United States qualified a team by winning the world title in 2018. Jade Carey has essentially locked up the first extra spot through the individual event World Cup series. The top gymnast on each event after eight competitions earns a trip to Tokyo, and Carey is in first on both floor exercise and vault with just two World Cups left.

The top three countries in the all-around World Cup series also get an extra spot. So long as the coronavirus doesn’t wipe out the remaining events – March 21-22 in Stuttgart, Germany; March 28 in Birmingham, England; and April 4-5 in Tokyo – the U.S. women will head to Tokyo with a six-pack. 

They likely would have, anyway. Biles is the reigning well, everything, remember. And Russia, which was second at last year’s worlds, has ceded an all-around World Cup spot by skipping the American Cup and the Tokyo event.

But Hurd made sure there would be no doubt about it.

“Absolutely,” Slava Glazounov, Hurd’s coach, said when asked if securing the Olympic spot provided extra satisfaction. “Being not super successful the previous season, certainly her nerves were shattered a little bit. I think she has extra satisfaction from going and proving, 'Hey, I can do it.’”

Hurd readily acknowledges that being left off the world team last year was devastating, and that it took her months to get over it. It wasn’t just the embarrassment, but fear that she had hurt her chances to make the Olympics.

Instead of letting it break her, however, the disappointment has forged a new resolve.

“We saw it at the training camp last week. She was a new person,” Forster said. “Even her body language. She owned the place.”

It was the same Saturday.

Hurd was not perfect – she had a big wobble on balance beam – but still was a class above the competition. She was in the top three on every event, and had the highest score of the day on uneven bars. Her floor routine, new this season, was both light and sophisticated, and her tumbling passes were solid.

She still has room to add to difficulty to her routines, too, with Glazounov opting to take out some skills to ensure a clean performance.

“I didn't feel necessarily the need that I had to go out there and win,” Hurd said. “But I did feel like I had to hit, hit clean to show that I'm still worthy of an Olympic spot, hopefully.”

With only four spots on the team – three, really, given that one will go to Biles so long as she’s healthy – the competition at this summer’s national championships and Olympic trials will be fierce. But Hurd's win at American Cup was a reminder that she's to be counted on, not counted out.  

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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