US gymnast Riley McCusker ready for World Championship debut 

A year after missing the World Championships, Riley McCusker is ready for the biggest stage of her life

The moment Riley McCusker has worked for her whole life is fast approaching. The 17-year-old American is set to make her World Gymnastics Championships debut in Doha, Qatar.

A year ago, McCusker was on track to make the team for World Championships in Montreal after finishing third at the U.S. Championships. But, then, a hamstring injury forced her to stop training and took her out of the running.

“Last year, I was really looking forward to going onto 2017 Worlds,” McCusker said in an Oct. 15 media call, three days after being named to the team for Doha.

“I was just devastated when I couldn’t continue training full routines. It was really hard because I had to take four months off.”

The long road back

When McCusker says took four months off, she means it.

“I wasn’t able to do anything – I was shut down – even from rehab, for a while,” she told the Olympic Channel in August.

That meant McCusker and coach Maggie Haney, who guided Laurie Hernandez to gold in Rio, had to be strategic on when, where and how McCusker made her return to competition. The duo put in the work, building back up strength and endurance, adding elements to increase her difficulty scores, and most importantly, giving her the time she needed to be healthy.

“I thought it was just kind of a good year for her to back off and rest and slow down and then, not go to competition until she was really ready,” Haney said.

And ready she was when McCusker finally made her 2018 debut at the U.S. Classic in Columbus in late July, finishing second only to Olympic champion Simone Biles and ahead of World champion Morgan Hurd.

Hurd and McCusker have since traded scores as the second-best American woman behind Biles. Hurd bested McCusker on the first day of the U.S. nationals, but McCusker was on top in the finals. At the recent U.S. women’s World Championships selection camp, McCusker finished ahead of Hurd.

That battle is one of the most compelling story lines among the U.S. team, which is heavily favoured for gold in Doha. Only two Americans can advance to the all-around final, and with Biles assumed to have locked one those spots, it will come down to Hurd and McCusker.

US women's team get ready for world championships

US women's team get ready for world championships

Bright lights, big stage

Watching from home last year has driven the New Jersey-native in the lead-up to Doha.

“I feel like it’s just motivated me, honestly,” she said. “Seeing what I missed out on, just lit a fire.”

Now that McCusker is finally at the World Championships, no one would blame her for having nerves on the biggest stage of her life, especially having missed out once before.

Instead, she has appeared calm and collected in training, despite a slip on vault during Tuesday's workout on the competition podium.

“She’s doing a great job,” said Haney. “She said the other day, ‘How many more days of training do we have? Because I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go.’ So she’s ready.”

McCusker has had help in the form of her roommate in Doha, Biles, who has shared her invaluable experience atop the gymnastics world.

“Every step of the way, she has little details for everything, little tricks,” said McCusker. “We're just learning the ropes from her because for a lot of us, it’s our first Worlds.”

“Riley had a rough practice the other day, Simone went right over and started talking to her,” Haney added. “She’s really good for all the girls.”

With Biles working her magic, Doha, and the world, should be ready for McCusker.

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