For the first time in the history of NCAA gymnastics, the sport now has a star ranking system for gymnastics recruits, much like the revenue sports have done for many years, courtesy of College Gym News. To kick off the first year of having starred recruits, Florida has signed a whopping three five-star and one four-star recruits. Having reported on the four-star, Sloane Blakely, a few days ago, let’s break down just exactly what a big deal it is that the Gators will have three five-star recruits in their 2022 freshman class.
We’ve mentioned them in several places before as being committed, but World Champions Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker are officially signed with Florida, and they’re both planning to defer now until the 2022 season in order to compete for a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team this coming summer. Today, Florida signed an additional national team member, Worlds alternate and World Cup champion Leanne Wong, who will also be competing for a slot on the Tokyo squad next year. All three have very good chances depending on how the next few months go, so expect to see all of them as part of the media leadup to the Games.
Morgan Hurd isn’t just any world champion, she’s an individual world champion, joining Gator legend Bridget Sloan as the only two World all-around champions in program history. Hurd was a dark horse pick at the time, with teammate Ragan Smith heavily favored to win until she injured her ankle in warmups for the all-around final. Hurd stepped in and hit when it counted, with her showpieces being her difficult beam set and her elegant, musicality-driven floor routine. That same beam routine earned her a silver medal in the beam final, and she came away tied as the most decorated American at the event.
2018 saw another trip to Worlds, as Hurd walked away with a whopping three medals: gold with the team, silver on floor, and bronze in the all-around.
She suffered some setbacks in 2019, as she struggled to implement several of the upgrades she’d been training and had an uncharacteristic fall at Nationals. After those difficulties and a not-so-stellar Worlds Selection Camp, she was named as an alternate, despite being the second-most decorated World medalist in contention. The 2020 season was cut short, but not before Hurd was able to make a triumphant comeback by winning the American Cup, part of the FIG World Cup series that could help the U.S. earn another Olympic berth. There, she showcased upgrades on uneven bars and brought back her difficult full-in beam dismount.
Hurd has tons of ways to rack up difficulty under the collegiate code, especially on floor with both powerful tumbling and difficult, well-executed dance elements. Her execution is also a strength – her improved handstand positions on bars here seem to indicate that she’s focusing on cleanliness now, which will play a key role in high scores during her college career. Hurd will join for the 2022 season, but doesn’t plan to join the team until January, hoping to make the 2021 World Championships team after the postponed Olympics. Her recent training videos on Instagram show her tumbling passes on floor, and it looks like she still has all her upgrades from earlier this year – a promising sign as we head toward the Olympic selection process. Once she hits Gainesville, though, she will definitely be an all-around threat for the Gators on a weekly basis.
Head coach Jenny Rowland is thrilled to have Hurd joining the program. Acknowledging that her recruiting process has been longer than most, she said, “we are very excited to continue to support Morgan from afar. Competing as a Gator will come soon enough… but between now and then we wish her much joy and success.”
Hurd said the most important factors to her in choosing Florida were “the facility and the people,” two things that are always huge pluses in the recruiting column for the Gators. Rowland’s final sentiment was something all Gator gymnastics fans are likely to agree with: “Gator Nation will be ready to welcome her with open arms in 2022.”
Despite a gym switch and taking significant time off to heal from some injuries and conditions caused by overtraining, McCusker is still 100% a major get for the Gators. Though she missed 2017 Worlds with an injury, McCusker played a key part in the U.S. gold medal at the 2018 World Championships, tying for the second-highest bars score of the night during the team final with two-time Olympian Aliya Mustafina.
McCusker has also won gold in uneven bars at the U.S. National Championships and the Pan American Games, and she’s a five-time U.S. national team member. She’s taken all-around silver at Pan Ams, an FIG World Cup, and U.S. nationals, as well as 10 other medals at major national and international competitions. Besides bars, beam is her biggest strength, where her long lines and attention to detail keep her execution score high.
It is worth mentioning, having outlined her competitive history, that McCusker has spent significant time away from competition because of injuries. In addition to those previously mentioned, she had to withdraw from the 2019 World Championships team because of a case of exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, a condition where skeletal muscle begins to break down very rapidly. McCusker’s former coach, Maggie Haney, has been banned from coaching for a number of years after allegations were brought against her from several current and former athletes, including McCusker, regarding physical and emotional abuse, including being forced to train on injuries. McCusker has also filed suit against Haney for negligence and assault, among other charges, and outlined many injuries over the years on which she was forced to train by Haney.
We at ChompTalk support McCusker in her healing process, whatever route that may take, and rejoice in seeing her succeed and grow at Arizona Sunrays, the gym where she plans to train until coming to Florida next fall. Scroll through these videos and check out what McCusker’s been training this year in quarantine with new training mate and fellow national team member Jade Carey, whose father Brian coaches them. We fully expect to see her anchor bars for the Gators one day, and it’s likely she’ll make an impact on all four events if she’s able to stay healthy.
Rowland had nothing but praises to sing when asked about McCusker. “Riley has a very unique ability to captivate a crowd with her stunning and graceful gymnastics all while being one of the most humble, kind-hearted young women I know.” Calling her gymnastics “exquisite,” Rowland revealed that, like Hurd, it has been a long recruiting process for McCusker, and that she’s “thankful that we’ve had the opportunity to support her throughout” the journey from verbal commit to signed recruit, with a detour through two years of deferment to try for the Olympic squad.
Upon her signing announcement, McCusker couldn’t keep the grin off of her face as she introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Riley McCusker, and I’m a Florida Gator!” She chose Florida for its stellar coaching staff and the atmosphere in the gym, which she described as a “family.” Rowland has “no doubt Gator Nation is going to instantly fall in love with her.”
The big announcement for this year’s signing period came in the form of Leanne Wong, yet another Tokyo hopeful, though her graduation timing won’t require deferral to make a run for the team. Her list of accolades as a senior elite is only shorter than her teammates-to-be because of their age difference, as Wong only became a senior in 2019 and the 2020 season was cut short, but her junior titles show just as much promise. Her first year as an elite, she became the national vault champion and was named to the junior national team.
The following year, 2018, she was named to the Junior Pan American Championships team (along with future Gator and training mate JaFree Scott) and earned a whopping five medals there, including bronze in the all-around and silver on three of the four apparatus. She went on that year to become national junior all-around and floor champion, as well as the junior silver medalist on vault and uneven bars.
Wong made her senior debut in 2019 with a bang, winning the American Cup when she was just the U.S.’s wildcard selection. She defeated 2018 World gold medalist Grace McCallum, as well as Olympians Ellie Black and Mai Murakami in order to win – no small feat for anyone, much less a first-year senior! The floor upgrades she instituted were perhaps her greatest asset in her quest for the gold, as she brought in a Dos Santos for her first pass, the same piked double arabian Gator fans will remember from Kennedy Baker’s legendary floor exercise. Wong was also named to the Pan American Games team, earning team gold and bars silver, the latter behind Florida teammate-to-be McCusker. She capped off her year by being named as an alternate to the 2019 Worlds team along with Hurd, after an underrotation on floor at nationals caused her difficulty score to drop and her cleanliness to be questioned. Despite the flub, she bounced back to perform the routine as intended on Day 2 of the competition and became the national beam bronze medalist.
Wong has continued to set her eyes on Tokyo, much like her future classmates. Leading up to her signing on Saturday, she took part in an internal competition at her gym, GAGE, which her head coach, Al Fong, broadcasted live on his Instagram. The video is 2 hours long if you feel like watching it, but here are some of Leanne’s training highlights as of late if you’re more of a TL;DR kind of person.
When asked about Wong, Rowland said, “Gator Nation is in for a huge treat!” She lauded “Leanne’s passionate and caring heart for those around her” and added that she’s a “fierce performer on the competition floor… [her] power and grace will be an incredible addition for both the Gators and NCAA gymnastics.” Rowland also emphasized that Wong isn’t only around for her pretty lines on bars and beam – she said, “you more than likely will see her on all four events [in the 2022] season.”
Wong isn’t just coming to UF for gymnastics, though. She has aspirations of becoming a doctor one day and puts a lot of importance in her academics, so choosing a school with a strong medical background was crucial. “Academic opportunities” was her number one reason for choosing Florida aside from the gymnastics program. Rowland added that she and the staff “look forward to seeing her dreams and goals of becoming an NCAA champion and doctor come to fruition.”
It’s no accident that Florida has so many high-profile recruits coming in. The recruiting work being done by the coaching staff, led by Rowland, gets better every year. The facility is incredible, the school well-known for many of its academic programs, and frankly, it’s really easy to market the climate and biomes of Florida as a positive to recruits. But what really seems to seal the deal for future Gators right now is the vibe in the gym. The positive atmosphere and the togetherness message that Rowland has made central to the program catches the eye of the right kinds of athletes. Expect to see Hurd, McCusker, and Wong falling right into step with Thomas, Schoenherr, and the rest as they put the team first in their quest for another national title. Florida’s last two attempts at gold were cut short, and the 2021 season is not yet certain, but you can bet that when they’re able to get back out onto the floor, this Gator team will be hungry, and these new recruits are no exception.
*Graphic via Erin Long, IG: @gatorgym_pics