U.S. women conquer Worlds for team title, 2020 Olympic berth
By Blythe Lawrence
In taking their fourth consecutive World team title Tuesday night in Doha, Qatar, Simone Biles, Kara Eaker, Morgan Hurd, Grace McCallum and Riley McCusker also took their place among the growing pantheon of the great American women’s gymnastics teams.
What will set them apart in the collective memory is that this talented young squad captured the gold by 8.766 points, their largest-ever margin of victory at a World Championships or Olympic Games, as they extended a golden streak that is the envy of the gymnastics world. In a team competition completely dominated by the Americans, Russia finished a distant second, China third.
That the U.S. would win the team competition was taken as a given all week, and when Tuesday’s final came around, nothing, even minor miscues on balance beam and floor exercise from superstar Biles, deterred the Americans as they drove straight toward their goal.
In addition to having the top scores on every event courtesy of Eaker on beam and Biles everywhere else, the USA’s team score for bars, beam and floor was more than a point higher than their nearest competitors. By the time Biles stepped onto the floor to close out the American’s competition, they had built such a formidable lead that the four-time Olympic gold medalist needed only to score higher than 6.0 for them to win.
“For all of us, it’s a dream come true,” said McCusker, who missed out on last year’s Worlds due to injury. “We’ve been dreaming of this since we were little, and I think it’s just an amazing experience.”
Biles looked unaffected by the kidney stone she’s nicknamed The Doha Pearl. If anything, she had too much energy, resulting in having to grab the balance beam after a front pike and bounding out of bounds on her opening tumbling pass on floor.
“I feel pretty good,” Biles said. “I’m in a little bit of pain, but nothing too crazy in which I can’t compete. We’re managing the pain, so that’s the most important part.”
Hurd brought clean execution and the steadiness she’s become known for as she earned a second World gold to go with her all-around title from 2017. Eaker contributed the highest beam score of the evening — 14.433 — for a beautiful set. “I wasn’t exactly relaxed but I was definitely just focusing on doing my normal gymnastics,” she said. “Not focusing about the nerves, just taking deep breaths and remaining calm.”
It was a very happy birthday for McCallum, who rocked solid routines on vault and floor on her sweet 16. “I felt more comfortable for sure, and I knew what to do and how to stay calm,” McCallum said. “It’s definitely really cool. I thought that team finals is the perfect day: It’s super fun and it’s all about the team.”
And there was precision from the artistic McCusker, who took full advantage of a second shot at the balance beam after coming off during Saturday’s qualification round. The decision to use McCusker in the team final and not Hurd, the reigning World silver medalist on the event, was only fair, women’s High-performance Team Coordinator Tom Forster said.
“We don’t write you off if you have a mistake,” Forster said, while also acknowledging that at this point he had the “luxury” of taking a chance. “We’re all human. But the key is that we’re not going to base [our lineups] off just a big high pressure meet. We’re looking at what they’re doing every day in training, and she earned it.”
Of his first World Championships experience as high-performance coordinator, Forster had a ready response.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “No, that’s a lie. It’s been a challenge. Tonight was fun, though.”
With one gold medal comes the promise of others, both later this week and in the further future. A year to the day since she began training after a self-imposed hiatus from the sport after winning four gold medals in Rio, Biles will be back for Thursday’s women’s all-around final, where she’ll be joined by Hurd in the hunt for more hardware. Biles, Hurd, Eaker and McCallum will be in the thick of things in this weekend’s event finals.
Team competition in the rearview mirror, Hurd has her list made for the all-around final. “I want to clean up everywhere. I want to clean up all my landings, I want to clean up my execution, and I just want to go out and have a confident performance,” she said.
The team podiums in Doha have also all locked up team berths to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Another nine will qualify at next year’s World Championships in Stuttgart, setting the table for the Olympic team competition in Japan in two year’s time.
All that is yet to come. But for the five new World team champions, it’s the Doha experience that will leave a lasting impression.
“I’d say I’m definitely a changed gymnast after this,” McCusker said. “I feel like I have so much experience now that I can just pull from, and I think it will help us a lot in the future.”