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Olympic gymnastics: Why you should watch the 2020 American Cup

Morgan Hurd, the 2018 American Cup champion, is hoping to win again on Saturday -- and make a case for a spot on this summer's Olympic team. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

This year's American Cup gymnastics competition won't be quite like the past 44. It's much more important.

The annual World Cup meet -- where 13 men and 13 women from around the world compete for an individual all-around title -- is Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. And while Americans have generally dominated over the years, with many countries either declining invitations or sending B-team athletes, this year's event in Milwaukee is very different.

That's because for the first time since the American Cup's inception in 1976, gymnasts are also competing for an Olympic spot for their country. At the same time, coronavirus fears have complicated things, leaving questions of which athletes will stay home. Here's what you need to know for Saturday:

Why should I tune in?

This American Cup will be a primer on whom to watch in the lead-up to the 2020 Games. And with Olympic qualifying and a World Cup title on the line, it's going to be an exciting meet as well.

So, how does Olympic qualification work?

It's complicated, but here's an overview: Twelve countries already have qualified a team to the Tokyo Olympics, and each country then will name its team of four gymnasts as we get closer to the Games. Some other athletes have qualified as individuals because of their placements in big competitions such as the world championships. But there are a few competitions this year that will allow countries to qualify more athletes to the Games. If a country is already sending a team to the Olympics, it can use these competitions to qualify a maximum of two more gymnasts, who would compete as individuals in Tokyo.

The American Cup is one of those meets. It's the first in a series of four all-around World Cups, which will be attended by individuals from the top-ranking nations from the 2019 world championships. At the end of the four-meet series, the three nations that rank the highest (decided by points awarded based on placement) will earn an extra Olympic spot.

That sounds like a big deal. Is it?

It is. That's what makes this year's Cup so important. In the past, because this meet was early in the competitive season, a far distance for many countries to travel and a big time zone change, some of the world's greatest gymnasts opted to stay home. But this year, top nations such as China are bringing their best gymnasts in an attempt to get one of those extra spots.

Which athletes should I be watching?

The U.S. women's team is No. 1 in the world, and for the two American women selected to compete here, this is a chance to show they've got what it takes to be named to the Olympic team this summer. Enter Morgan Hurd. A fan favorite, Hurd earned the 2017 world all-around title, then followed it up the next year with a bronze in the all-around. After also winning the American Cup in 2018, it seemed that Hurd would be a shoo-in for an Olympic spot.

But 2019 upset her plans, and unsteady performances at U.S. nationals and the worlds selection camp kept Hurd off the competing team at last year's world championships. This American Cup will be her first competition this season, and it's her first chance to show why she shouldn't be left behind again in the Olympic year. She is the favorite to win the meet, and that would be a good omen: Thirty-six American women have won the 43 all-around competitions since the Cup was first held in 1976, and every winner in an Olympic year has made the Olympic team.

What about the rest of the women's field?

Hurd's competition includes big names such as 2018 Youth Olympic Games champion Giorgia Villa (Italy), world team bronze medalist Zhang Jin (China), Pan American Games champion Elsabeth Black (Canada), and Hurd's own U.S. teammate Kayla DiCello. The women competing are very close in ability and this will make for an exciting race for the podium.

Who is Kayla DiCello?

The short answer: a possible breakout star this season. DiCello will make her senior elite debut at the American Cup as the United States' "wild card" entry (as the host, the U.S. gets to select an additional athlete on each side, though their placement doesn't count toward Olympic qualification).

DiCello only became age-eligible for senior competitions this year, so you haven't seen her on a major roster yet. But the 2019 U.S. junior champion in the all-around, vault and floor could be a strong contender for the Olympic team. She will want to prove herself at the American Cup -- and could be Hurd's biggest challenger.

Who will conquer in a tough men's field?

Like the U.S. women, the American men have mostly dominated their end of the American Cup, taking most of the titles over the competition's history. This time, the U.S. is sending its top athlete, Sam Mikulak, a six-time national champion and the 2014 American Cup winner.

But Mikulak has his work cut out for him: Some of the best male gymnasts in the world will be in attendance. Most notable: Ukraine's Oleg Verniaiev, who came in second in the all-around at the Rio Olympics and third at 2019 worlds, along with world team bronze medalist Daiki Hashimoto of Japan and Spain's Nestor Abad, a veteran of five world teams. The second American, Shane Wiskus, was a 2019 world team member and won the U.S. vault title last year.

What about the coronavirus?

The new coronavirus (which causes COVID-19) already has impacted the American Cup roster, with Nikita Nagornyy and Lilia Akhaimova -- two of Russia's top athletes -- officially opting out due to travel concerns. Russian head coach Andrei Rodionenko clarified that gymnasts were kept from competing because of fears of being quarantined en route, causing athletes to forego training for up to two weeks. This absence is a tough blow to Russia, as there are only four all-around World Cups this year and all four scores count.

China's gymnasts already have been forced to stay home for another Olympic qualifier this year, the Melbourne World Cup (part of a separate World Cup series), potentially affecting their chances of qualifying another individual there. As of now, it's unclear whether they will have to do the same here, leaving Zhang Jin and Hu Xuwei at home and forfeit potential qualifying points.