Morgan Hurd, the New American Superhero

People watch sports events because they are thrilling and competitive, but they also watch sports in order to be inspired. Well,  if you would like to be inspired by a wonderfully talented girl who tumbles with her glasses and braces on, look no further than the latest American star.

Morgan Hurd has just won the all around women's title in artistic gymnastics, an achievement hundreds of thousands of girls around the world dream about. Many fans like rooting for the underdog, but who everyone likes to root for is an athlete who is talented, focused, humble and sweet. This is exactly what Megan Hurd is. She has all the qualities of the kind of unexpected superhero that can inspire everyone.

16-year old Morgan was adopted from Wuzhou, China as a toddler. She lives in Middletown, Delaware with her mom. Her coach is from a beautiful town called Nizhny Novgorod in Russia. 

All three places are not exactly the kind of locations that most people can spot on a map.

But winning is not about where you started or about where you stopped at the end. It is about the distance in between. Morgan's journey is tremendous. She had some good marks before winning this title, but not really big wins. She truly started from zero and ended up right at the top.

To be fair to her and her competitors, Morgan's victory was somewhat unexpected, though it was completely deserved. Her name now stands next to those of Kim Zmeskal, Shannon Miller, Shawn Johnson, Chelsie Memmel, Bridget Sloan, Jordyn Wieber, Simone Biles.

Above all the skills and the hours of training, and above the natural talent or even all the pain involved in learning new moves, Morgan stands where she is because, during the most challenging time in her career, unlike many of her competitors, she stayed calm and confident and did not make mistakes. Being a hero is not always about spectacular moments, drama and competitive thirst. Being a hero can be mostly about quiet, unwavering resistance.  Morgan may have surprised some fans. But she really just went out there, and did the very best of her best. That's something that many people, who are otherwise extremely killed, frequently fail to do under pressure. 

Morgan has won and she's smiling with her braces in order to remind us about the great range of things in life that are possible. She "dwells in possibility" as a poet wrote. I think it's no accident that her coach's first name means "glory."


Time for Changes in a Traditionally "Female" Sport

For many decades, rhythmic gymnastics has been a sport that only women can enjoy as participants (but, curiously, not as spectators).Rhythmic gymnastics stands alongside synchronized swimming in terms of this restriction. No other popular sport, whether an official Olympic discipline or not, draws a gender line.

In fact, some other sports that involve dance, music and even ballet moves, such as figure skating, not only allow participants from both genders, but also allow them to participate at the same time (for example, in the mixed pairs). The same is true of various disciplines of acrobatics.

In Japan, men have been training and performing as rhythmic gymnasts for many years. Other countries have also shown an interest introducing routines for men and among them is the current leader in the sport, Russia and other prominent rhythmic gymnastics nations, such as Spain and Italy.

If so many people around the world think that including men is a good idea, why hasn't it happened yet? Well, a lot of it has to do with overcoming the force of habit and addressing stereotypes.

Some fans and professionals alike worry that the sport will become "too acrobatic" and lose the characteristics of gymnastics that involve musical interpretation and work with the apparatus. Others worry that working with a different type of apparatus for men may make the sport "more like juggling." What is not clear to me is why these concerns apply only to men, and not to women in the sport. There are certainly women who have strong acrobatic skills or who emphasize apparatus work. If there is a Code of Points in place which mandates what routines should include, the dangers of swinging to the acrobatic or juggler side can be prevented.

Still others are concerned that some of the mandatory elements in the sport "just do not look good on men." But if we look at pirouettes and jumps in ballet, many elements are frequently performed by all dancers, including the essential turns and jumps.

Also, because rhythmic gymnastics has been so "feminine" over the years that other critics of the inclusion of men in the sport may wonder: would men "look good" in colorful leotards with Swarovski crystals? The answer is that, of course, they will look great if everything is done with taste and attention... and, in fact, we know from experience that plenty of existing women teams can certainly use more taste in attention in leotard design. It is very easy to look ridiculous in an overly decorated leotard, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.

But a greater point should be that, if you want to be a gymnast, you should have the opportunity to do so under existing rules. If your desires and talents include more acrobatics, or more dance, or more sparkles on the leotard, you should have the opportunity to show that within established limits. Other sports have shown that audiences enjoy watching men and women as long as they are good athletes. And if we look at the Japanese men who have engaged in this sport so far, the quality of athleticism is hardly a question.