Morgan Hurd, Delaware's unique (and bespectacled) gymnastics world champion

Morgan Hurd is the reigning world champion in the all-around for women’s artistic gymnastics.

Right now, the world all-around champion in women’s gymnastics is from Delaware.

This has never happened before. Top gymnasts do not typically come from this region. Texas, a mix of cities in the Midwest, and a long list of Russian oblasts, yes. The Delaware Valley, no. The region can claim only three medalists in the history of the World Championships, Morgan Hurd being the only gold. In fact, since Delaware split from Pennsylvania in colonial times, Hurd is only its fourth individual world champion in any sport (among them, the two pocket billiards players from the last century), according to officials at Wilmington’s Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame.

But that’s not why gymnastics fans can’t stop talking about her. That was happening before she won in October in Montreal.

Hurd, who is 16, maintains a Tumblr (the gymternet, the online community of devotees, still loves Tumblr), where she answers fans’ questions and fangirls gymnastics videos of her own idols.  She stands 4-foot-5, small in a sport where short is common. And she prefers to compete in glasses instead of contacts, a choice only one other elite female gymnast has made in recent memory. When Hurd is on camera, talking to reporters, she responds with ease in an environment that often makes her gymnast peers clam up.

“She’s just really smart. She just radiates intelligence,” said Dvora Meyers, the gymnastics reporter for Deadspin. Jessica O’Beirne, the host of the podcast Gymcastic, joked that 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin “might be more obsessed” with Hurd than with her fiance, and yet she opened her own interview with Hurd by asking if it was cool to call her “Morgiboo.” (It was.)

Hurd, who lives in Middletown with her mother and uncle, trains in Newark at First State Gymnastics with Slava Glazounov, her coach of 10 years. She’s there six days a week, practicing from 9 a.m. to noon, taking a break for her online homeschool coursework (on weekdays), and hitting the mats again from 3:30 to 7 p.m. At home, she showers, eats, and maybe decompresses while watching TV. On Saturdays, she trains for a half day.

Hurd talked about her life as an elite athlete at a recent morning training at First State’s parents room, between the lobby that sells “Follow the Hurd” gear and the gym, where a large poster on the wall commemorating her world championship dwarfs all other banners. Firm and professional, she gave the impression she was ready for questions but also ready to get back to business.

“I knew I had a big goal and high standards for myself, and I needed to do training for more than four hours a day to achieve that, or else it wasn’t going to happen,” she said, remembering how her 11-year-old self decided to transition to training full time. “I just took it step by step. I didn’t think too far ahead. I knew I wanted to make the national team eventually, I just didn’t …”

She rethinks, “The first year, it was a whirlwind.”

Meyers points to the 2014 Nastia Liukin Cup, a national competition for gymnasts on the cusp of elite-level competition, as the moment when fans started to pay attention. She fell off the balance beam and placed 14th out of 18 juniors. Still, when it came to style, she wowed. Hurd is a gymnast who, Meyers explained, stays mindful of her hand movements when completing a move, her skills extremely polished. Liukin remembers watching, enamored, and telling one of the producers that Hurd should be included in the television broadcast.

Camera icon David Swanson
Morgan Hurd said her first-place finish “still feels a little unreal.”

Born in China and adopted at 11 months, Hurd has a wiser-than-her-years vibe that her mother, Sherri, credits to being an only child.

As for the gymnast’s determination, Sherri can’t quite figure it out. She insists she’s not the one pushing.

“I’m really not sure where it comes from, to be completely honest,” she said. “I mean even today, she’s been struggling with a really bad cold. And I was like, Maybe you should stay home. And she was like, No, I’m going to the gym.”

Hurd admits she had “a poor showing” at the national championships, placing sixth, an outcome critics raised when she was selected for the four-member national teams for Worlds.

Simone Biles, taking a year off, wasn’t there, so all eyes were on the favorite: U.S. champion Ragan Smith. After Smith had to withdraw from the competition, her ankle injured during a warm-up for the all-around, Hurd was the sole American left, and she stunned.

Now she’s left trying to master the Moors — the most difficult ranked skill in all of gymnastics. She wants to “put up a little fight” against Biles when the Olympic champion returns.

As for the difficult tumbling pass, a double-twisting-double-back: “I don’t know. Sometimes I feel really good about it,” she said. “It just depends.”

Because she insists on wearing frames — contacts collect every piece of chalk dust in the place — she can’t see well beyond the periphery of her glasses, especially when she’s, say, performing a handstand or in the middle of a flip.

“I think I’ve been doing it for so long, I know how to work around not seeing out of certain spots and where to look,” she said.

Sometimes, though, when the gym gets hot, her lenses fog up, and she can’t see much of anything. When that happens, she keeps going, just following her intuition. It’s almost like flying blind.

Camera icon David Swanson
Hurd trains at First State Gymnastics in Newark.

Liukin said that Hurd’s poise is notable because it’s a skill that takes time to develop, and time isn’t something elite gymnasts have. “Gymnasts — we’re constantly in the gym; we don’t really have a life outside of gymnastics,” said Liukin. “But she’s a grown-up.”

Hurd credits her growing library.

Hurd is known among fans for her love of Harry Potter. But she also enjoys a trip to the bookstore, the condition of her books so pristine, said her mother, that Hurd won’t let her borrow them in case she dog-ears a page.

“I’ve given her a Kindle,” Sherri explained. “Not interested.”

With another old-school sentiment: “I have to be able to feel the book when I’m reading,” she said. “I have to be able to turn the page.”

She risks getting too consumed if she reads on weeknights. But when she has the time, as her mother describes it, her life stops being entirely gymnastics. Hurd said she uses it to think of views she hasn’t seen before: “It’s giving me so many choices on the person that I want to be.”