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

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The Ragan Smith that earned a spot as an alternate to the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team last summer got by on precision, precociousness and more than a dash of charm.

That girl is gone. A more mature, more professional version has emerged over the last 12 months. The proof came just before Smith’s final rotation on balance beam at the P&G Championships on Sunday night.

Firmly in the lead and needing only to avoid disaster to finish atop the podium, Smith did something unusual. She got quiet. No pestering coach Kim Zmeskal Burdette. No singing Justin Bieber songs to take her mind off the moment. Instead, the 17-year-old took a few deep breaths and finished what she started.

“She stopped asking questions,” Zmeskal Burdette said. “I don’t know. It’s like a different look in her face. That’s the goal to get her to that.”

Consider Smith there. Polished and poised from her more sophisticated floor routine to her still-evolving beam set, Smith finished with a two-round total of 115.25, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith entered the meet as the standard bearer for the women’s program with the Final Five taking a break. Rather than be rattled by the pressure, she thrived in it. Even though she seized a 1.3-point lead after the first day of competition Friday, she knew it wasn’t anywhere hear her best. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.85 total on the final day was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

“I just thought I had to go full out,” Smith said. “No regrets.”

And for the moment, no challengers in the U.S. and perhaps the world. Smith is a lock for the four-woman team for October’s world championships in Montreal. She will enter as one of the all-around favorites.

An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

It’s a stark difference from last summer when she came from out of nowhere to nearly land an Olympic spot. No longer. She’s the one in the spotlight at the moment for the most dominant women’s program on the planet, a position she’s hardly shying away from.

“I feel like she likes this role,” Zmeskal Burdette said.

It certainly looks that way. Smith has ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used in 2016 for something a little more adult. 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, setting an example the rest of the field seemed to follow.

Women’s national team coordinator Valeri Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the group at large Friday but admitted he wanted to see something a little crisper Sunday. He got it. Eight of the women in the top 10 improved from their scores Sunday, with Smith setting the tone.

“She pulled everybody up,” Liukin said. “I’m happy with what I see now. We just need a little more time to cook. We have the talent.”

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.

“It was cool but kind of crazy,” Chiles said.

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. Still, she finished first on bars, with her legs practically magnetized together as she elegantly made her way through her routine.

The world championships team won’t be revealed until after a selection camp in Texas next month. Smith doesn’t need to worry about her spot. It’s secure.

“She can step up and calculate better [with] her emotions,” Liukin said. “That’s what great athletes do. She’s getting there right now. This is her time.”

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

John-Henry Krueger makes Olympics, four years after swine flu

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Four years ago, John-Henry Krueger spent Friday night and early Saturday morning at the Olympic Trials lying on an apartment bathroom floor, unable to keep food down due to swine flu.

Tonight, Krueger celebrates his first Olympic short track speed skating berth.

“The win today in spite of what happened four years ago just made the victory that much sweeter,” Krueger said on NBCSN.

He topped the 1500m at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, to become the first of five men to qualify for PyeongChang this weekend.

Krueger was second in the first of two 1500m races behind three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski.

Celski went into the second and final 1500m as the favorite but slipped and fell with a lap and a half left.

Krueger won the race and moved ahead of Celski in the overall standings for the one Olympic berth available.

Celski will have more chances Saturday and Sunday to get one of the last four Olympic men’s spots.

Vancouver Olympian Lana Gehring swept her 1500m races to become the first woman to make the PyeongChang team.

Gehring, 27, held off Jessica Kooreman by .113 of a second in the second 1500m final to clinch the spot. Kooreman was later disqualified.

Gehring failed to make the Sochi Olympic team, retired, unretired in late 2015 to try long-track speed skating, then switched back to short track this year.

In 2014, the U.S. won zero individual short track medals at an Olympics for just the second time since the sport debuted at Albertville 1992.

Celski and Kooreman came the closest to the podium, each picking up a fourth-place finish.

Individual medal prospects in the six events in PyeongChang are not great.

The U.S. bagged one individual World Cup medal this season in 24 total races — a bronze from Celski.

Krueger leads the program with five individual World Cup medals since Sochi, one coming in the last three years.

In 2013, he also won a World Cup medal and was a favorite to get to Sochi. But he came down with swine flu the week of trials.

He fought, even finishing second in a race on the final day, but didn’t have enough strength to make the Olympic team.

“All the lovely side effects that come with swine flu,” Krueger, who now lives and trains in the Netherlands, said earlier this fall. “I had all the classic symptoms of that.”

The best hope in PyeongChang may be the men’s relay, where the U.S. made the podium at the last three Olympics.

A U.S. quartet anchored by Celski and including Krueger broke the world record last month.

The four men who will join Krueger in PyeongChang will be decided the next two days in Utah.

The top finishers in the 500m (Saturday) and 1000m (Sunday) are guaranteed Olympic berths.

The U.S. women did not qualify an Olympic relay, but the 500m and 1000m winners will join Gehring in PyeongChang for individual races. If Gehring wins either distance, then a runner-up in one of the distances will qualify.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic short track skater gets 4-year doping ban

U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK

Chloe Kim qualifies for U.S. Olympic snowboard team

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — In 2014, Chloe Kim ranked high enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in snowboard halfpipe, but she was too young to compete at the Winter Games.

Four years later, she’ll finally have the opportunity to represent the red, white and blue at the Olympics.

Kim won her second straight Olympic qualifier, which will secure her nomination to the U.S. halfpipe team. The 17-year-old, who is the only woman currently capable of landing back-to-back 1080s, is considered the gold medal favorite for PyeongChang 2018.

“It seems like a dream almost, and I’m trying to wake up,” Kim said of earning her spot on the Olympic team. “I think today when I get home, it’s going to sink in, and I’m probably going to cry.”

With the pressure of Olympic qualifying over with, Kim says that cleaning up her cab 1080s will be a primary focus as she prepares for PyeongChang.

Who will join Kim on the women’s halfpipe team remains up in the air, though Kelly Clark is in good shape after a third at the Copper Grand Prix and a second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, which hosted Friday’s qualifier.

The three-time Olympic medalist crashed on her first two runs in the final and needed to be checked out by the medical staff after hitting the deck on a frontside 1080 attempt on Run 2. With a bandage on her nose, she came back undeterred in Run 3, landed the frontside 1080 and got onto the podium.

“These are Olympic qualifying events, and me ending up in the middle of the pack isn’t really going to benefit me,” Clark said. “I have one shot, so I went for it.”

The men’s halfpipe competition produced a surprise winner in 19-year-old Jake Pates, who outdueled not just his own U.S. teammates but also a stacked field of international riders.

Pates came out firing on his third and final run, putting down a sequence of tricks that ended with a unique variation on the double McTwist 1260 made famous by Shaun White. Instead of doing a standard grab, Pates executed a tail grab on the trick that added extra difficulty and clearly caught the eye of the judges.

“That was a trick I’ve been wanting to do forever,” Pates said of the double McTwist, which he had never landed in a contest before. “Seriously, I saw that happen when I was, like, 8 years old. I saw that happen at X Games and it was crazy.”

According to Pates, it was just the fourth time he had ever landed the trick on snow.

With such a stacked group of riders on the U.S. team, Pates was mostly overlooked when it came to Olympic qualifying favorites. Now he’s suddenly in the discussion as a possible medal contender.

“I never thought in a million years I would have won this event today,” he said. “I just wanted to land that run, actually I’ve never done that before. I’ve been dreaming about that all week.”

Ben Ferguson, who was the top American at the first selection event, took a strong step toward making his first Olympic team as well by finishing third overall and second among Americans in Breckenridge. He and Pates will both be in position to potentially secure their spots on the team at the next qualifier.

“For every other American out there, there is another level of pressure we’ve got to deal with doing these [Olympic qualifiers],” Ferguson said afterward. “And for me, doing well in these last two has kind of pulled some of that pressure off and relieved a little bit of anxiety, and I can just focus on having fun more.”

Aside from helping to shape the U.S. Olympic team, the men’s halfpipe competition in Breckenridge also provided a showcase of international stars who will be in the mix for medals in PyeongChang.

Scotty James of Australia unveiled a new run which included back-to-back double cork 1260s and a switch backside 900. It was a very technical run which earned him a massive score and would have given him the victory were it not for Pates stepping it up at the very end.

Also standing out was Japan’s Ayumu Hirano. The Sochi silver medalist started his run off with a massive indy air before going into a difficult sequence of tricks that included a frontside double cork 1440 and frontside double cork 1260. He finished in fourth.

Absent from the men’s field was White, the two-time Olympic gold medalist. White was unable to put down a clean run amid snowy conditions during Thursday’s qualifying round and therefore failed to advance to the final.

Despite the disappointing result, White is still in good shape when it comes to Olympic qualifying. He was second among U.S. riders at the first selection event and still has two qualifying events left.

Up to three spots on the U.S. team for both men and women will be allocated through automatic qualification. In order to be eligible, riders need a top-three finish at one of the selection events. Each rider’s two best results will be used as a tiebreaker.

There are two selection events remaining for snowboard halfpipe, and they will both take place in January.

Olympic qualifying for snowboard and freeski slopestyle resumes Saturday in Breckenridge.

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MORE: Shaun White details crash that led to 62 stitches

Snowboard Halfpipe
Qualifying Standings 
(through two of four events)
1. Ben Ferguson — 1,800*
2. Jake Pates — 1,320*
3. Danny Davis — 1,200
4. Shaun White — 1,120*
5. Gabe Ferguson — 950
5. Chase Josey — 950

1. Chloe Kim — 2,000* (QUALIFIED)
2. Kelly Clark — 1,400*
3. Maddie Mastro — 1,300*
4. Arielle Gold — 1,100*
5. Elena Hight — 850
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result.

Breckenridge Finals (all times Eastern)
Friday
Men’s Ski Halfpipe — 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.
Women’s Ski Halfpipe — 12:45-1:30 p.m.
Men’s Snowboard Halfpipe — 2:30-3:45 p.m.
Women’s Snowboard Halfpipe — 4:15-5 p.m.

Saturday
Women’s Snowboard Slopestyle — 11-11:45 a.m.
Men’s Snowboard Slopestyle — 12:15-1:30 p.m.
Men’s Ski Slopestyle — 2:30-3:45 p.m.
Women’s Ski Slopestyle — 4:15-5 p.m.