Simone Biles

Five things we learned from U.S. gymnastics National Championships

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Overarching storylines now that the U.S. gymnastics championships are over …

1. The women’s team doesn’t have legitimate replacements for the Fierce Five yet.

Good news for any 2012 Olympians looking to get back into the mix … Team USA still needs you. McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross put on a show at nationals, claiming all of the event gold medals (Ross: balance beam, uneven bars; Maroney: vault, floor exercise).

The only newcomer who set herself apart was all-around champion Simone Biles. With only a handful of juniors from this year’s competition moving to the senior ranks in 2014, there’s plenty of room, and plenty of need for the Fierce Five to return. Judging by this weekend’s performances — the USA could really use a Gabby Douglas uneven bars routine right about now.

2. The American men have some serious depth.

The U.S. men are finally getting a break after cycles of rebuilding after Olympics. The combination of a young Olympic team in 2012 and a great mix of specialists provides a luxury of depth for the first time in many years. In the past the men’s team has leaned heavily on one or two stars (Paul and Morgan Hamm, Blaine Wilson), but the World Championships team this year could be entirely made of men with Olympic and/or worlds experience.

It’s so deep that the 2012 U.S. all-around champion, John Orozco, didn’t make the World Championships team outright; he’s an alternate who could replace the injured Danell Leyva. Things are looking up for a program that has much to prove after their poor showing in London.

3. USA Gymnastics delivered big time for their audience.

USA Gymnastics gets a round of applause for their digital and social media efforts, especially by former University of Michigan gymnast Scott Bregman, who has changed the game for the 50-year-old institution. Up until last year there were few options to see junior portions of competitions, or even day one preliminary competitions for the sport’s most die-hard fans.

USA Gymnastics live streamed all major events this season. They also live streamed podium training, previously only open to the media, and added athlete interviews and vintage full broadcasts of domestic competitions dating to 1980. USA Gymnastics uploaded a staggering 1,200 videos from the weekend’s National Championships, totaling more than 72 hours of coverage. Their YouTube views totaled nearly 1.4 million during the five-day competition. The most watched video? Maroney’s night two vault.

4. Reputation still counts.

Gymnastics remains, in part, a subjective sport. In past decades and even under today’s revised scoring system, gymnasts have relied on reputation to get the benefit of the doubt, whether it’s from the team selection committee or from the judges.

Maroney has set the precedent of near perfect scores on vault. While she was great at nationals, the judges awarded a 9.7 execution score for a vault that was clearly inferior to her Olympic team final stunner that earned a similar 9.733. The good news? If she sticks the Amanar at the World Championships, we could see the first perfect 10.0 at a worlds under the new scoring system.

5. Mykayla Skinner to Worlds?

Three of four women’s spots on the World Championships team are already locked up: Biles, Maroney and Ross. There’s only one spot left and no standout specialists to fill it. Martha Karolyi has thrown surprises in the past, so don’t count out Mykayla Skinner.

Skinner, 16, lacks the polish of her teammates, but she boasts some of the most mind-blowing gymnastics out there, including a double twisting double layout on floor that if performed at the World Championships would bare her name in the Code of Points. She didn’t hit in night one, but she stuck the double twisting double cold Saturday, finishing third on the event behind Maroney and Biles. She can further her cause at the selection camp next month.

Bonus: Bats love gymnastics, too

During the first night of men’s competition a large bat frantically flew around the heads of the audience and commentators in the XL Center (video here). Nastia Liukin muted her mic a few times during the broadcast out of fear of the shrieking as the winged mammal flew by. The bat even got it’s own Twitter account (@PGChampsBat). The arena said it died of “natural causes” before the next day.

Leyva pulls out of worlds; Orozco could replace him

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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