Ragan Smith, Ashton Locklear lead U.S. gymnastics’ new wave

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ANAHEIM, California (AP) — Technically, Ragan Smith never stepped foot on the floor as a competitor at the Rio Olympics as the star-studded U.S. women’s gymnastics team beat a steady and relentless path to the podium on its way to medal after medal after medal.

Not that it mattered to Smith. Technically the 17-year-old was a “replacement athlete,” a fancy description for “alternate.” Funny, she didn’t feel like one as she trained up to and through the games just in case.

“If you ask her, she says she’s an Olympian,” coach Kim Zmeskal Burdette said.

And now she’s the center of attention.

As the “Final Five” take a break and weigh their future Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian are being inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame on Saturday — the 17-year-old Smith finds herself as the face of the program as the P&G Championships begin Friday night.

This weekend marks the first time since 2005 that no one on the previous Olympic team returned to compete the following year, leaving the stage to Smith and the next wave in a program that plans to keep on rolling with Valeri Liukin taking over for retired national coordinator Martha Karolyi.

“The expectations are the same,” said Rhonda Faehn, senior vice president of the women’s program.

P&G CHAMPS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
TV Schedule | Final Five Updates

No big deal or anything. All Smith and company have to do is follow in the footsteps of the most decorated team of all time. That’s fine with Smith and her coach, who won Olympic bronze at age 16 in 1992.

“People ask about pressure and adding pressure and it’s doesn’t if that’s what you were striving for in the first place,” Zmeskal Burdette said. “If you want to be the one people are talking to, it gives you more confidence.”

Something Smith is not lacking. She made a splash in 2016 in her first year as a senior, her tiny size and infectious floor exercise — set to theme from “The Addams Family” — making her instantly recognizable. She’s ditched it for something a little more grown up this year, by design.

“It’s sassy instead of very cute,” Zmeskal-Burdette said. “That’s the character she feels very good with. She is sassy. So be it.”

And a pretty good gymnast in her own right. While she’s talked openly about trying to extend her elite career through the Tokyo Games, Smith is trying to focus on the now.

“I don’t think, ‘Oh the 2020 Olympics,’ I don’t think about that ever really,” she said. “I just have it in the back of my mind as a goal.”

One that remains far off. Biles did the near impossible when she won three consecutive world all-around titles before winning a record-tying five medals in Rio. At this point, Smith would settle for a solid weekend at the Honda Center and a spot as one of four U.S. women at October’s world championships in Montreal.

So far, so good. Smith won the AT&T American Cup in March and seems at ease with being one of the favorites, though not the only one.

Ashton Locklear served as an Olympic alternate along with Smith and is eager to prove she’s more than just a wonder on uneven bars. Riley McCusker shook off a shaky performance at the American Cup — including a frightening dismount on balance beam — to bounce back and win the all-around and the beam at an international meet in Italy a few weeks later.

“That’s the gymnast she is,” coach Maggie Haney said.

One who is hardly afraid of the standards set by those who came before.

“It’s definitely cool being the next generation,” McCusker said. “I think we can prove ourselves and be the same or even better than the last generation.”

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MORE: For Gabby Douglas, this break from gymnastics is different

PyeongChang late night roundup

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It was a terrific ending for the Olympic curling tournament. The U.S. men’s team defied all odds by upsetting Sweden in the final 10-7. Buoyed by John Shuster’s double take out in the eighth end, the United States all but assured gold at 10-5 up.

On the night that the United States won its ninth gold medal during these Olympic Games, Finland won its first. Cross-country skier Livo Niskanen outpaced the rest of the 50 man field in the 17th kilometer. OAR skier Alexander Bolushnov gave him a fight in the final kilometers, but he too was eventually left behind.


Curling: USA wins first-ever curling gold 

The USA men’s curling team’s improbable Olympic run has concluded in glory. John Shuster’s squad looked like they were in control from the very onset of the match, forcing Sweden to make errors. The highlight of the match: Shuster’s final stone in the eighth end to put the USA well out of reach with a 10-5 lead.

The United States started competition 2-4 and looked well out of contention to make the playoffs, but an incredible run of three wins saw them get into the playoffs on the final day.

Recap: USA men’s curling wins Olympic gold 

The USA weren’t the only surprise medal winners today. Japan won the country’s first-ever Olympic medal after defeating Great Britain.

It all came down to two steals from Japan in the final two ends, with Briton skip Eve Muirhead missing her final stone to give the victory to Japan.

Men’s Tournamenet

USA def. SWE 10-7

Women’s Tournament

JPN def. GBR 5-3

Cross-Country: Niskanen wins men’s 50km 

Finnish skier Livo Niskanen’s pace was too much for nearly the entire field on Friday night. The Finn broke from the pack, along with Alexey Poltoranen, in the 17th kilometer and continued to stay out front. After Poltoranen ran out of gas, it was OAR athlete Alexander Bolushnov who erased a 30 second gap to challenge the Finn.

It wasn’t until the last kilometre that a seemingly-fatigued Niskanen made his final move to brush of Bolushnov to cross the finish line.

It was a very disappointing day for the Norwegians, who’ve dominated the sport this year. Not one Norwegian landed on the podium, including gold medal favorite Martin Sundsby.

Full men’s 50km recap available here 

Speed Skating: Takagi, Lee win inaugural mass start 

Making its Olympic debut, the speed skating mass start proved to be an erratic event as several skaters collided and crashed out of the competition.

The final race is simple: first three skaters to cross the finish line win the medals.

Estonia’s Saskia Alusalu made the initial burst of energy in the race, but was caught up to in the final three laps. The women’s champion was decided by a final sprint, when Japan’s Nana Takagi beat world champion Kim Bo-Reum and Irene Schouten.

Women’s mass start recap available here 

Lee Song-Hoon won the men’s tournament, ensuring that the speed skating program would not have as sour an ending as the short track. Unlike the women’s race, the men’s skaters stuck together as a train for most of the race until the final three laps.

In the end, Lee came in with too much speed to be overtaken by any of the chasing competitors.

Men’s mass start recap available here 

USA wins gold in men’s curling

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For the first time in history, the United States won the Olympic gold medal in curling.

A week ago, it didn’t seem like that would happen. Sitting at 2-4 and with a game against behemoth Canada coming up, John Shuster captained the United States to three consecutive wins (over Canada, Switzerland, and Great Britain) to squeak into the semifinals. From there, they took down Great Britain before completing the run against Sweden in the gold medal game.

Tied at 5-5 in the eighth end, Shuster was able to hit both of Sweden’s rocks out of the house, giving the United States an incredible five points and a 10-5 lead heading into the ninth.

NBCOlympics.com: Watch: Team USA scores five points in eighth end

After that, it was all about protecting the lead. Just a few minutes later Swedish skip Niklas Edin conceded the game, and it was the United States standing on top of the podium for the first time ever in the sport of curling.

Click here to read the full recap from the gold medal game