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.”

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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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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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