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)

Luz Long’s Olympic silver medal for sale from Jesse Owens long jump duel

Jesse Owens, Luz Long
Getty
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One of the most consequential Olympic medals ever awarded is on the auction block — the silver medal captured in 1936 by Germany’s Luz Long, the long jumper who walked arm in arm through the stadium with Jesse Owens to celebrate their triumphs while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.

Long’s family has decided to auction the medal and other collectibles from the German jumper’s career. Long was killed in World War II in 1943.

The auction house selling the medal has labeled Long’s collection “The Beacon of Hope.”

“The story of Jesse Owens never seems to end,” said Long’s granddaughter, Julia Kellner-Long, in a phone interview from her house in Munich. “My grandfather has always been inspirational and influential in the way I choose to see the world, and this is something I think the world outside needs. Now more than ever. It gives us hope.”

Long cemented himself in Olympic lore during the Berlin Games when he was the first to congratulate Owens on his triumph in the long jump. Later they walked around the stadium together and posed for pictures.

There’s also the story Owens told of Long approaching him after he fouled on his first two attempts in the preliminary round. With only one more try to make the final, Owens said Long suggested he take off a foot in front of the board, to assure he wouldn’t foul on his last try. Owens took that advice and went on to win the title — one of four he captured in Berlin — with a then-Olympic record jump of 8.06 meters (26 feet, 5 1/2 inches).

Owens was Black, and his stirring success at those Olympics was said to have annoyed Hitler by puncturing the Nazi myth of Aryan racial superiority.

The camaraderie between Owens and Long, and the relationship that ensued between the men and their families, are often held up as the prime example of what the Olympics are supposed to be about — a peaceful coming together of people from different countries and cultures who set their differences aside in the spirit of competition.

“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me,” Owens said, years later. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”

The decision to sell came shortly after Luz’s son (and Julia’s father), Kai, died at age 80. Kellner-Long said the great responsibility of preserving her grandfather’s memorabilia should be passed onto an individual, or museum, that has the time and resources to do so. The family also wanted to use the sale to rekindle the story of Long and Owens.

“Even 86 years later, shining a beacon of hope is an important and realistic value, especially in a time of increasing racism, increasing exclusion and hatred,” Kellner-Long said.

The auction house started the bidding for Long’s medal at $50,000, and estimated the value at somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. The bidding runs through Oct. 15. The value of Olympic medals on the open market varies widely. One of Owens’ four gold medals from 1936 fetched $1.46 million. Bill Russell’s gold medal from the 1956 Olympics recently sold for $587,500.

David Kohler of SCP Auctions, which is conducting the sale, said the medal is about Long, but also “the story of the courageousness and the athlete and what he did there.”

Long didn’t live long enough to see his legacy play out. He was killed in 1943 in the battle of St. Pietro on the Italian island of Sardinia. Shortly before that, he wrote a letter to Owens, one he predicted would be “the last letter I shall ever write.”

In it, Long asked Owens to go to Germany after the war and find his son.

“Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we were not separated by war,” Long wrote. “I am saying — tell him how things can be between men on this earth.”

Owens and Kai Long met several times over the years, including at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1966. Owens later was a best man at Kai’s wedding.

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Jenny Simpson, most decorated U.S. miler, shifts focus with new Puma sponsorship

Jenny Simpson
Puma
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Jenny Simpson, the most decorated U.S. female miler in history, plans to return to racing on Sunday with a new shoe sponsor, Puma.

Simpson, whose last race was the Cherry Blossom 10-mile road race in Washington, D.C., in September 2021, according to World Athletics, will run what she called “a little rust-buster” at the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

“My intention is to turn my focus to the roads,” Simpson, 36, wrote in an email. “I have some great PUMA spikes that I love so the track isn’t off the table. But my emphasis will be road racing.”

Last year’s Cherry Blossom was her first race longer than 5,000 meters, according to World Athletics. What are the chances she eventually moves up to the marathon distance?

“This new chapter is an exploration,” she answered. “I’m going to let the races, training, and coaching guide the next steps as they come. I know I can physically do it, it’s a matter of whether I can be great at it and my team and I will only go there if we think we can be competitive. So, let’s say for chances… 51% :)”

Simpson made her first Olympic team in 2008 in the 3000m steeplechase, then in 2012 and 2016 in the 1500m, earning a bronze medal in Rio. She is the lone U.S. woman to win a world 1500m title (2011) or an Olympic 1500m medal.

From 2007 through 2019, Simpson finished in the top three in one of the 1500m, 5000m or 3000m steeplechase at all 13 annual USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Last year, she was 10th in the Olympic Trials 1500m in a bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic 1500m runner in history, according to Olympedia.org.

Simpson focused much of her time this year helping her Colorado community heal and rebuild from a late December fire. She did not enter the USATF Outdoors for the first time since 2006.

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