By Gina Pongetti Angeletti and Anna Rose Johnson
The year after the Olympics is always an interesting one, as it allows for the veterans to rest, and for some to retire or move into NCAA. It also presents a World Championships for individual medals—all-around and event titles, with no team medals.
Feature photo by Grace Chiu
For the US Women, without a single 2016 Rio Olympian in tow, Ragan Smith and Ashton Locklear were carrying with them their Rio alternate experience to lead a team completed by Morgan Hurd in her first World Championships, and Jade Carey, also her first Worlds—and also first major international competition.
Their qualification round was a bit rough, with specialist Ashton Locklear presenting an impeccable uneven bars routine and qualifying for finals even without her complicated and signature in-bar work due to recovery from a shoulder injury, but then falling on balance beam out of the top eight. Carey sat in second place going into vault finals, just behind Maria Paseka of Russia.
The Americans were in Olympic event order, leading Smith to have her balance beam fall in the third rotation. Though seemingly shaken by her surprising fall, she rotated to floor with a standout routine, finishing with the top score of the evening, and going into the AA finals in the pack of favorites to podium along with Japan’s Mai Murakami, the home country’s Elizabeth Black (CAN) and a close field behind.
For the men, Yul Moldauer lead the pack, after an incredible career at Oklahoma, carrying on solid gymnastics with Mark Williams (also Oklahoma Men’s Gymnastics Head Coach) leading him to the podium. Sam Mikulak was chosen to contribute to the team on what was going to be high bar and pommels, and a lineup change was made to place Marvin Kimble on pommels instead. Mikulak, returning from his Achilles injury earlier this year at Winter Cup, is not yet fully recovered and released for heavy pounding, did not present on the other events at Nationals.
Olympian Alex Naddour showed unwavering consistency on pommel horse, his signature event, and qualified for finals as well. Coming off a medal in Rio, he was focused on being an event specialist and he fulfilled his duty.
The men’s competition was now open to having a new leader, with Uchimura out from injury. So many of these athletes had the gamut of motivation to have this be their year—from Moldauer as the underdog, to Verniaiev taking what slipped from him in Rio, to the pressure of the Chinese and Japanese athletes to maintain their assumed podium excellence.
Moldauer delivered a solid performance that names him “Mr. Consistency,” which head coach Williams explained “is something to expect from Yul, because it is the way he has trained through college, through elite and now here.” Hitting 6 for 6 both nights, he proved that, although there are upgrades to be made, he has great potential for the future.
Verniaiev may have had the shakes because of the major opportunity at hand. Not that the gold position was never a possibility for him before—it has been for years—but here, at least one competitor was not even a contender. Maybe this possible achievement was at the forefront of his through process so much that the moment at hand was overshadowed and the details and focus were lost. Issues on floor and pommels built up, leading ultimately to his 8th-place finish.
In the end, two extremely talented Chinese teammates went 1-2 in the all-around—Xiao Ruoteng and Lin Chaopan, who relied on brilliant execution across the board to score 86.933 and 86.448, respectively. Japan’s Kenzo Shirai, traditionally a vault and floor specialist, proved his consistency in the all-around here and won the bronze with an 86.431.
In the lineup for the women’s AA on Friday evening, the athletes presented in order, and there was no Ragan Smith. Gasps from the crowd ensued, as announcements were made via social media regarding Smith’s ankle injury during her vault. First-year senior elite Morgan Hurd now stood alone as America’s hope to carry on the world event podium tradition. She was possibly nervous, though it was hard to tell. Her mood and focus went from dialed-in to mental imagery and pre-routine walk-throughs, then to smiling and waving at the camera, to the audience’s elation.
Mai Murakami’s fall on beam was visually shocking to her, and with energy rising for Canada’s Ellie Black, balance beam provided to try to throw her off as well with wobbles and balance checks, but alas, no falls. A 12.866, with her 5.8 difficulty carried her through, placing her in the lead going into the last rotation.
Finishing out the evening on floor exercise, Hurd was prepared. Up first, she would put it all out there, and then play the waiting game for the others, now out of her control. Black completed her routine to a standing ovation from the crowd, featuring explosive tumbling including a 2 ½ through to a double back and a nearly-stuck triple twist dismount. Black felt the pressure of performing not only in her home country but also to the watchful and hopeful eyes of a country that so desperately wanted a place in the all-around podium for the first time ever at a World Championships. “Focus on the process and then rest will take care of itself,” said Black, who explained that this is what Canadian National Team Director Dave Brubaker installs in them.
Murakami tumbled through an exquisite floor routine with sticks and near-sticks on every single apparatus. Waiting for Murakami’s score to post, Black was guaranteed Canadian history for being on the podium at Worlds, and Hurd a medal as well. In the end, Hurd took the victory with a 55.232, just one tenth ahead of Black, who won the silver. Bronze went to Russia’s Elena Eremina, who suffered a break on her Pak salto but rebounded successfully to score a total of 54.799. Murakami ended up fourth, her floor score just missing the mark she needed to capture the bronze.
In the end, the gymnastics world rejoiced in a collective euphoria for Morgan Hurd, who burst into tears as soon as she realized she was the World All-Around Champion. It was a moment of glory for team USA and a 16-year-old from Delaware.
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