MONTREAL, Canada—Four years of Simone Biles-led dominance basically guaranteed gold medals to the U.S. women’s gymnastics team every time they arrived at a world championships. With the Olympic champion on hiatus from full-time training and competition, what the Americans are left with is gold medal potential. But those titles are definitely not in the bag.
The four gymnasts with the medal potential are virtual unknowns outside of the sport. You have Ragan Smith, 17, the current national champion and 2016 Olympic team alternate; Morgan Hurd, a 16-year-old first year senior and the best thing to come out of the state of Delaware; Jade Carey, 17, who just leapt from the Junior Olympic program to the elite world in less than a year; and Ashton Locklear, the grand dame of the team at 19. Like Smith, she was an Olympic team alternate, as well as a member of the 2014 world championship gold medal winning team.
There is no team competition at the world championships in Montreal, so even though these four women wore the same leotard and rotated together during tonight’s preliminary competition, they were competing for individual berths in the all-around and event finals.
And they did a pretty good job of it. Carey, who is competing in her first international competition ever, made the most of her two opportunities. She only competed on floor and vault, and she made finals on both pieces. She had essentially been recruited out of the J.O. due to her incredible ability on those two apparatuses. At the moment, without Biles, the U.S. women have something of a power deficit, and Carey helps plug that hole.
Smith, one of the pre-meet favorites, had a rockier day than her teammate but made it out alright in the end. She made a mistake on bars and fell off beam—her first fall off the apparatus in competition since the American Cup in March. She rebounded quite nicely on the floor, where she earned the top score of the day. And despite the errors, Smith qualified to the all-around final in second place, just one one-thousandth of a point behind Mai Murakami of Japan. Murakami had a spectacular competition, one of the best of her career. It’s unlikely that she can improve all that much on what she did tonight during the all-around final, whereas Smith has a lot of room for improvement. Smith is still definitely in the hunt for the title.
Locklear also made finals on her specialty, the uneven bars, but probably won’t medal there during the event finals. The bars field is stacked with crazy routines this year—like every year—and Locklear doesn’t currently have a difficult enough program to contend for a medal. Of the eight women who made it into the uneven bars final, Locklear’s difficulty is the lowest by far. The next lowest D score of the group is still half a point higher. The reason that she’s so far behind the top group in terms of difficulty is that she’s been dealing with an injury for most of this season. Locklear is aware that a medal is highly unlikely at this championships and didn’t really mention it during the interviews in the mixed zone.
Speaking of interviews in the mixed zones, let’s talk about Morgan Hurd. If they awarded gold medals for poise and ease with the media, this kid would win all of them. She’s the Simone Biles of holding court with reporters. When she spoke to the press after the podium training a couple of days ago, one of the first things she did was wish a popular gymnastics blogger a belated “Happy Birthday.” Hurd is playful and laughs easily and never gives a pat answer, even when she’s asked a stupid question. (It’s a sports mixed zone, so stupid questions happen a lot.) Nor does she ever seem like she wants to run away from reporters, even though we are a terrible group of people.
In fact, she’ll sometimes even call a reporter over to speak with her. Back in 2015, when Hurd was just a junior, I was passing through the mixed zone after the junior national championships. I had no reason to speak to the juniors; I was there for BuzzFeed profiling Simone Biles, who was a senior. I was just down in the junior mixed zone looking for someone I knew.
But Hurd saw my credential, which said “BuzzFeed” and called me over to her and we had an adorable conversation about her favorite quizzes—she loved the Harry Potter ones. Her passion for the J.K. Rowling series abides. After the recent U.S. Classic, she tweeted, asking fans to photoshop a Gryffindor scarf onto a photo of her. (The gymternet quickly fulfilled that request.) And when I asked her what character she’d like to play in a floor routine, she quickly answered, “A wizard,” and laughed. “Of course I would say say that.”
All of this intelligence and charisma wouldn’t mean much if she wasn’t also excellent at gymnastics, which she definitely is. Hurd first caught the attention of gymnastics fans in 2014, when she competed at the Nastia Liukin Cup.
As you can see, she was pretty damn cute. (Still is.) And she showed incredible polish for someone who was only 12 at the time. Also, the glasses. As she’s explained several times, contact lenses dried out her eyeballs.
Hurd’s transition to the senior ranks this year has not been smooth. She started the year off with an all-around bronze at a World Cup event in Stuttgart, but she could’ve won the whole meet had she not fallen twice off the balance beam. Hurd followed that meet up with an 11th place all-around finish at a competition in Italy. And at the national championships in August, Hurd placed 6th. She didn’t seem at all like a shoo-in to make the four person world championship team.
But at selection camp, Hurd performed well and was chosen, much to the surprise of many, to compete in one of the two U.S. all-around slots in Montreal. And in tonight’s preliminaries, she demonstrated why she was put on the team. She placed 6th in the all-around, which means she’ll be seeded in the top group for the final. Hurd was also the second highest qualifier to the beam final. And like Smith, her all-around total could potentially increase in the final if she doesn’t fall again on the floor exercise.
When asked what it felt like to compete at her first world championships, Hurd described it as “a big glowing orb inside me of excitement.”
A glowing orb isn’t the same as a gold medal, but at least they’re both shiny.