Riley McCusker

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)

Ragan Smith, after watching in Rio, leads P&G Championships

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith admits it’s a little weird to look at the scoreboard during a gymnastics meet and not see Simone Biles’ name at the top.

“Nobody can beat Simone,” Smith said of the Olympic champion. “She’s unstoppable. She’s amazing.”

And also taking a break following her historic Rio performance, leaving the 17-year-old Smith as the standard bearer for a program in the midst of a transition.

It’s a role Smith insists she’s ready for, and on the opening night of the P&G Championships, Smith looked the part.

Sassy on floor, steady on beam and solid everywhere else, Smith posted an all-around score of 57.400 on Friday.

That’s 1.3 points clear of Riley McCusker during two hours that saw the sea of new faces following in the wake of the Final Five deal with more than a fair amount of nerves.

Smith can fall and still win the national all-around title on the final day of competition Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

“It’s kind of nice, like, having a new generation coming up,” Smith, who is coached by 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal Burdette, said on NBCSN. “I think it’s a little less pressure, but I still kind of feel like it’s the same because I had no idea what was going to happen last year.”

The second- and third-highest scores Friday actually came from the earlier junior division. With no team event at October’s world championships, senior depth is less necessary this year, the first nationals with zero Olympians since 2008.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an Olympic team alternate, put together a typically precise routine on uneven bars but fell off the balance beam.

Alyona Shchennikova, who won the U.S. Classic last month, saw any legitimate chance at winning a national title evaporate when a nightmarish beam routine sent her tumbling to eighth.

Morgan Hurd stepped out of bounds on her floor routine and shorted a landing to wind up sixth.

New national team coordinator Valeri Liukin, who mentored most of the women in the field while they were in the U.S. developmental program, allowed things didn’t exactly go smoothly.

Yet he’s hardly concerned. This is kind of how it’s supposed to go.

“This is the first year after Olympic Games, and it’s tough, historically always,” Liukin said. “I’m just hoping it’s not only for us.”

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

Smith seemed at ease in the spotlight. Save two bobbles on beam — where she still posted the highest score of the night — Smith avoided the kind of missteps that were commonplace elsewhere.

For now, that’s enough.

Smith captured the AT&T American Cup on March 4 before a minor injury in the spring interrupted her training. No biggie.

She was back in form in front an audience that included Biles, who told NBCSN viewers she returned to the gym two weeks ago, the first step of her planned comeback.

It will still be months — if not longer — before Biles will be competition ready.

“No plans yet,” Liukin said. “We [are] just hoping that she’s coming back and she comes back as Simone Biles.”

Either way, Liukin is confident the program remains on solid ground. Yes, this group doesn’t exactly have the star power of the Final Five that brought home four golds, four silvers and a bronze.

Then again, neither does any other country.

“We’re just starting, they’re brand new,” Liukin said. “We need time to build it.”

While Locklear remains among the best on the world on uneven bars — she posted a 14.35 using a watered-down routine that will include upgrades between now and October’s world championships in Montreal — she faltered on beam, coming off in the middle of her routine and then taking a big step on her dismount.

McCusker, who won the Jesolo Trophy on April 1, put together an elegant bars set that scored a 14.55 (best of the night) and was nearly Smith’s match on beam.

Not bad considering she spent a considerable portion of the spring and early summer with casts on one of her feet and one of her wrist.

McCusker wasn’t cleared to do her full bars routine together until three weeks ago.

There she was on Friday night making a pretty solid case that she should be in the mix for the four-woman world team named after a camp next month.

“I still have a watered-down vault, I still have a lot of stuff to add on beam,” McCusker said. “But I’m starting to get used to being on the podium and more confident in what I can do.”

Only McCusker, Jordan Chiles — whose Amanar vault earned a 15.15, the best on any apparatus — and Margzetta Frazier head into Sunday’s finals within two points of Smith, who wasn’t getting ahead of herself.

“It feels great but I definitely can do better,” Smith said. “[But] I mean, I like being on the top, so it kind of feels good.”

VIDEO: Simone Biles says she’s back in the gym

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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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