© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

Compare Morgan Hurd’s 2018 to her 2017 and it’s like comparing night and day. Or, as Harry Potter-adoring Hurd might say, like comparing pensieves and portkeys.

“I definitely feel pressure, but I feel like it comes from myself, just because I have higher expectations,” the reigning World all-around champion said in her frank-spoken way. “I’m a different person and a different gymnast than I was last year.”

Heading into the 2017 Worlds, Hurd was the underdog. Mid-season elbow surgery that limited her training time left her in sixth place in the all-around at the U.S. Championships. When she finished no higher than fifth on any individual event, some wrote her off as a viable candidate for the four-person World team.

The diminutive gymnast from Middletown, Del., proved them all wrong. She was so impressive at the World Team Selection Camp that she made the team for the 2017 Worlds in Montreal. There, she advanced to the all-around final in sixth place, behind 2017 U.S. champion Ragan Smith, the top qualifier, and a pack of established and up-and-coming stars.

Then, in the space of a few hours, everything changed. A fluke ankle injury took Smith out of the all-around final minutes before it began, leaving Hurd to march into the arena as the American’s sole representative in an event they had dominated since 2011.

In that pressure-filled, make-or-break atmosphere, Hurd unleashed the Gryffindor warrior within. Four solid routines later, she had outdueled Canada’s Ellie Black for the World all-around title on Black’s home turf.

“Literally every event you could see her confidence grow,” High-Performance Team Coordinator Tom Forster recalled. “She got more confident literally between the first event and the last event. It was fun to watch. And I see that same confidence now.”

The medal didn’t change Hurd’s perception of herself — if anything, it only served to show her what she could accomplish with hard work. She went straight back to the gym and emerged in 2018 a more tenacious competitor, fully aware of the possibilities before her.

During the past several months, she’s diligently maintained some of her routines and added to others, particularly on floor, where this summer she debuted an uber-difficult double twisting double layout first pass, making her one of only five women ever to perform it in competition.

“I know I’m capable of more than last year,” Hurd said. In Doha, at a World Championships where Simone Biles has quickly re-solidified herself as the top gymnast in the world, Hurd has been right behind her, making her own strong case for a place on the podium.

As the team’s leadoff gymnast in Saturday’s women’s prelims, Hurd turned in calm, difficult routines with her signature flair.

“I was really pleased with today,” she said afterward. “I felt really calm, and it just felt like training…I definitely feel pressure, but I feel like it comes from myself, just because I have higher expectations.”

And rather than becoming rivals, Hurd and Biles have bonded. “Honestly, it’s developed off of our food cravings,” Hurd giggled. “We get crazy foods online and text them back and forth to each other and basically kill each other with them.” On Sunday, Hurd posted an Twitter photo of the budding foodies smiling ecstatically in front of a Doha Waffle Boutique.

“We found our heaven,” she wrote.

Back in Delaware, Hurd’s World gold medal is displayed in a shadowbox over Hurd’s bed. It was a wonderful moment, but Hurd has moved on. It’s a different year, and she knows there’s more to accomplish.

“I never pay too much attention to it,” she said. “I have other things to think of.”