A talented pool of U.S. gymnasts vying to join Simone Biles in Tokyo
It’s easy to forget that there’s more to the U.S. women’s gymnastics team than Simone Biles.
The face of the sport with just under a year to go until the 2020 Olympic Games, Biles is arguably the greatest female gymnast of all time and one of the world’s greatest athletes ever.
With each competition, Biles seems to soar higher, break more records, push the sport further.
But behind Biles there is an incredible depth of talented American teenagers eager for their chance at World, Olympic and – this week in Lima – Pan American Games glory.
“I’ve always said to my girls the hardest part is getting out of our country,” said Maggie Haney, who coached 2016 Rio Olympic champion Laurie Hernandez to gold and silver medals.
Haney’s current pupil Riley McCusker joins her 2018 World championships team gold medal-winning teammates Morgan Hurd, the 2017 World all-around champion and one of the stars of the Olympic Channel original series ‘All Around’, and Kara Eaker.
Newcomers Aleah Finnegan and Leanne Wong round out the U.S. team that will enter the Lima 2019 artistic gymnastics competition on Saturday (27th July) as the heavy favorites, despite Biles' absence.
“Once you get there – it’s not easy – but international competitions are often not as intense or as high quality as our U.S. national competitions,” Haney added.
McCusker burst onto the scene as a junior competitor at the 2016 U.S. Gymnastics Championships. The event was just her third time competing as an elite gymnast, her second time on the raised podium used at major events like the Olympic Games.
She finished second.
From there, McCusker cemented herself as a vital part of Team USA, taking third in the senior all-around standings at both the 2017 and 2018 U.S. championships.
She comes to Lima fresh off an impressive performance at the U.S. Classic.
“I kind of feel like I know what to expect now and know when to come down and when to go up routine wise throughout the year,” McCusker said after the Classic. “So I feel like I’m definitely getting a grasp of that.”
A grasp indeed. Her 57.900 total in the all-around is the second highest score in the world this season – second only to Biles – and was just 2.100 back of the four-time Olympic champion.
“It honestly didn’t even really feel like a meet,” said McCusker. “I was really prepared for it.”
In Lima, she’ll be looking to help the U.S. women win their fifth straight team gold medal at the Pan Ams.
Individually, McCusker's toughest competition to take the individual all-around title will likely come from whichever of her teammates join her in the final, along with 2017 World all-around silver medalist Ellie Black of Canada.
The New Jersey-resident has a busy few weeks ahead with the U.S. Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, coming just a week after competition wraps in Lima.
Whether or not she enters all four events there will be a game-time decision.
“We’ll see how I feel whether I do a couple of events or if I do all-around again,” McCusker said of her country's nationals. “When we get there, we’ll figure out it.”
Sixth at the U.S. Classic, Hurd appears to be pacing herself, building for a season that still includes competition at the Pan Ams, U.S. Championships, and two national team camps prior to October’s World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
In her first two seasons as a senior competitor, Hurd and longtime coach Slava Glazounov have demonstrated an uncanny ability to produce her best gymnastics when it matters most.
In 2017, she finished sixth in the all-around at U.S. nationals before winning the World title weeks later. In 2018, though she finished second at the U.S. Championships she was fourth at the World Selection Camp.
Twenty-one days later: she landed on the all-around podium at the Worlds for a second year in a row.
“It’s still early on in the season,” she said at the Classic, “and with me going to Pan Ams, I’m just going to gain a little more experience under my belt.”
Hurd’s experience includes wins at two all-around World Cups, in addition to five World medals. Those medals make her the seventh most decorated U.S. gymnast and she is one of just eight American women to win the World all-around title.
Along with Russia’s Angelina Melnikova and China’s Chen Yile, Hurd stars in the Olympic Channel’s original series aptly titled ‘All Around.’ The series’ first episode drops August 6 on OlympicChannel.com.
Along with McCusker and Hurd, Eaker is the third U.S. gymnast in Lima who won gold at last year’s World Championships in Doha.
Though she first made a name for herself as a stand out performer on the balance beam (her 15.400 at the U.S. Classic took the event title, besting even Biles on the event), she finished an impressive fourth in the all-around at the Classic.
Her Great American Gymnastics Express training-mates Wong and Finnegan round out the top U.S. roster. Wong is the reigning U.S. junior champion and 2018 American Cup winner. Finnegan is the sister of Sarah, 2012 Olympic team alternate and LSU standout.
Four of the five women have recorded top 12 scores in the all-around in 2019, according to TheGymter.net: McCusker (second), Eaker (sixth), Wong (eighth) and Hurd (eleventh).
“We’re pretty lucky. We are,” national team high performance coordinator Tom Forster told Olympic Channel of Team USA's depth. “And Simone really helps. She kicks everybody up.”
“It’s a neat part of history for our sport.”
Olympic Channel are on-site in Lima, streaming events live in many countries (click for restrictions) and with a daily live blog rounding up the best of the action. You can also find out more about the event in our full preview.