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)

Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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