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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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1 (not counting matches played once they’ve already clinched qualification). The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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