Fresh off the biggest win of her short gymnastics career, 16-year-old Morgan Hurd and her coach, Slava Glazounov, landed at Philadelphia International Airport, headed to baggage claim and prepared for the hour-long drive home to Middletown, Delaware. It was a monotonous drill they'd performed hundreds of times before.
But on this day, TV reporters and fans holding signs congratulating Hurd met the pair in the arrivals area. Later that week, First State Gymnastics threw a party in her honor. More interviews. An autograph signing.
"It was incredible," says Glazounov, Hurd's coach since fifth grade and the owner of First State. "She was on cloud nine."
If you haven't yet heard the name Morgan Hurd, it's likely that over the past few weeks, you've seen something about her.
She's that gymnast who competes wearing glasses. And braces. The one who's so tiny she looks tiny standing next to other gymnasts.
The one that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted at and called "a real-life hero in glasses" after learning the self-described Potter junkie had won the women's world all-around title.
Yes! That Morgan Hurd. Before this summer, Hurd was barely a household name in the homes of avid gymnastics fans. She had the distinction of being the first elite gymnast from the state of Delaware, and her adorably unique looks and creative floor routines have had some fans buzzing since 2014. But it was her surprise win at the 2017 world championships in Montreal on Oct. 6 that landed Hurd on an exclusive eight-woman list of U.S. world champions that includes Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles, Shawn Johnson and Shannon Miller, and lit up her Twitter mentions.
"It is all surreal," Hurd says. "I was so honored just to be competing at worlds and to win it was the most amazing feeling in the world. It's been slowly setting in."
Her rookie-year rise up the senior ranks however, was anything but slow-going. In August, Hurd finished sixth all-around at nationals, three months after undergoing her second surgery in four years to remove cartilage from her right elbow. With the finish, she secured a spot on the national team and one of 10 invites to participate in world championships selection camp at the National Team Training Center in Houston in September.
"I didn't have the best showing at nationals, so going into worlds camp, I was the underdog. I was not anyone's first choice," Hurd says. "That pushes me. I wanted to show people that I went home and worked my butt off and I'm here to make the team."
At the camp, Hurd placed first in the mock competition and was selected to the four-woman world championship team, where her goal was simply to make the all-around final and one event final. Her teammate and roommate in Montreal, Ragan Smith, the 2017 national champion and an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team in Rio in 2016, was the heavy favorite to win the all-around in the absence Biles, a three-time winner who took a year off after the Olympics. In the qualification round at worlds, Smith qualified second behind Japan's Mai Murakami, and Hurd qualified in sixth.
Then, moments before finals began, Smith injured her ankle while warming up for vault and was forced to withdraw from the competition. America's only hope for an all-around medal now rested on the 4-foot-5 shoulders of Hurd, who was competing in her first world championship and had never won an individual title at an international meet. To add to the pressure, the U.S. team had won the past six world and Olympic all-around titles.
"I had such weight," Glazounov says. "Now Morgan alone represents the United States and all the talk is about how the U.S. has not lost a medal in so many years and it's on her all. The national team coordinators are looking at her and me and there was so much nerves and fears."
What happened next surprised even Hurd. One by one, she hit all four routines and gritted out as consistent a performance as she has all year. Despite bobbles during her beam routine and a step out of bounds on floor, she finished .1 ahead of Canada's Ellie Black, whom she trailed by .2 heading into the final rotation.
"I feel pretty proud of myself," says Hurd, who also took silver in the beam finals two days later. "Throughout the year, I haven't been super consistent and that's why no one had me as their first pick. My entire elite career, I haven't been the most consistent gymnast. But I am proud of myself for going out and hitting all my events."
On the podium, Hurd's eyes widened as 1976 Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci placed the gold medal around her neck. In elementary school, Hurd's mother, Sherri, had bought her a book about Comaneci and, inspired by the story of the first "perfect 10," Hurd pulled her hair back with a ribbon and wore her competition warm-ups to school. Dressed as Comaneci, she stood at the front of her third-grade classroom and gave a report on the book.
"It was incredible to meet her," Hurd says. "She asked me about the report. She said she was honored."
Since middle school, Hurd has had her mind buried in books -- the actual ink-and-parchment type. Back then, she couldn't wait for the annual book fair, where she would stock up on Scholastic readers and YA titles. Today, while other kids her age are saturated in social media, Hurd prefers the sanctity of stories. "I know it's rare," she admits. "I think I'm the only person at my gym who actually likes to read."
Her love of reading, in fact, started as a salve for social media, a way to escape when she began competing at bigger meets and needed to focus on her routines instead of worrying about the harsh opinions of people she'd never met.
"I'll Give You The Sun" by Jandy Nelson, "Everything, Everything" and "The Sun is Also a Star" by Nicola Yoon are three of her favorites. She recently started "Turtles All The Way Down" by "Fault in Our Stars" (another favorite) author John Green and she has read every volume of Harry Potter more than once. The night the official synopsis of the play "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" was released to bookstores, Hurd donned her cape and wand and waited in line at her local Barnes & Noble to be one of the first in her town to own the book.
"I like that I can forget about what's happening in the real world and transfer to a different one," Hurd says. "I don't really watch TV or sports other than gymnastics. I'd rather read my books."
She's a massive fan of "Hamilton" the musical, loves to lip sync to its songs and has no interest in getting her driver's license. Although she's only a junior, she's already committed to the University of Florida, where she hopes to compete on the gymnastics team after fulfilling her Olympic dreams in Tokyo. She's a glasses-wearing, book-reading, self-possessed world champion who travels with two backup pairs of glasses and is keenly aware of her status as a real-life heroine to aspiring young gymnasts and awkward teens alike.
"No one is born perfect," Hurd says. "You will have imperfections. I hope more people see me and try to do sports or gymnastics with glasses. Nothing should stop you from doing something you are passionate about."
That self-assuredness is a characteristic her mom, Sherri, says Morgan has shown since she was a child.
"Sometimes I think, 'How is she capable of all this?' " Sherri says. "It does still surprise me, but she's always been that way -- organized, focused, knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it. Her independence amazes me. I was never that independent or confident at her age."
Hurd was 11 months old when Sherri adopted her from Wuzhou, China, and brought her to Middletown. When Morgan was 3, Sherri began signing her up for various sports -- gymnastics, soccer, T-ball, dance -- wanting to provide opportunities Morgan would not have been afforded had she grown up in China. Because of her size, most sports were tough. But at gymnastics class, being tiny and flexible was a gift. By fifth grade, her talent had outgrown her rec league classes, so Sherri brought her to First State.
"She stood out from the start," Glazounov says. "She exhibited that desire, she loves to impress and she wanted it always. No one ever had to tell her to work hard."
A single mom, Sherri worked as a dental hygienist for 30 years until retiring and taking a job for Discover Bank that allowed her to work from home and support her daughter's home-schooling and budding gymnastics career.
"Who would have known when I went to get that little girl in China that this was what was going to happen," Sherri says. "Now, college and having a career outside of gymnastics and a happy life is what is important to me. This is our life now, but that is what I want for her, a life that is as fulfilling and happy as possible."