Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience made the last two Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Paris 2024 Olympic marathon route unveiled

Paris 2024 Olympic Marathon
Paris 2024
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The 2024 Olympic marathon route will take runners from Paris to Versailles and back.

The route announcement was made on the 233rd anniversary of one of the early, significant events of the French Revolution: the Women’s March on Versailles — “to pay tribute to the thousands of women who started their march at city hall to Versailles to take up their grievances to the king and ask for bread,” Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet said.

Last December, organizers announced the marathons will start at Hôtel de Ville (city hall, opposite Notre-Dame off the Seine River) and end at Les Invalides, a complex of museums and monuments one mile southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

On Tuesday, the rest of the route was unveiled — traversing the banks of the Seine west to the Palace of Versailles and then back east, passing the Eiffel Tower before the finish.

The men’s and women’s marathons will be on the last two days of the Games at 8 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET). It will be the first time that the women’s marathon is held on the last day of the Games after the men’s marathon traditionally occupied that slot.

A mass public marathon will also be held on the Olympic marathon route. The date has not been announced.

The full list of highlights among the marathon course:

• Hôtel de ville de Paris (start)
• Bourse de commerce
• Palais Brongniart
• Opéra Garnier
• Place Vendôme
• Jardin des Tuileries
• The Louvre
• Place de la Concorde
• The bridges of Paris
(Pont de l’Alma; Alexandre III;
Iéna; and more)
• Grand Palais
• Palais de Tokyo
• Jardins du Trocadéro
• Maison de la Radio
• Manufacture et Musées
nationaux de Sèvres
• Forêt domaniale
des Fausses-Reposes
• Monuments Pershing –
Lafayette
• Château de Versailles
• Forêt domaniale de Meudon
• Parc André Citroën
• Eiffel Tower
• Musée Rodin
• Esplanade des Invalides (finish)

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International Boxing Association lifts ban on Russia, Belarus

Boxing gloves
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The International Boxing Association (IBA) lifted its ban on amateur boxers from Russia and Belarus over the war in Ukraine that had been in place since early March.

“The IBA strongly believes that politics shouldn’t have any influence on sports,” the federation said in a press release. “Hence, all athletes should be given equal conditions.”

Most international sports federations banned athletes from Russia and Belarus indefinitely seven months ago, acting after an IOC recommendation. It is believed that the IBA is the first international federation in an Olympic sport to lift its ban.

The IOC has not officially changed its recommendation from last winter to exclude Russia and Belarus athletes “to protect the integrity of the events and the safety of the other participants.”

Last week, IOC President Thomas Bach said in an interview with an Italian newspaper that Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could at some point be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag.

IBA, in lifting its ban, will also allow Russia and Belarus flags and national anthems.

“The time has now come to allow all the rest of the athletes of Russia and Belarus to participate in all the official competitions of their sports representing their countries,” IBA President Umar Kremlev, a Russian, said in a press release last week. “Both the IOC and the International Federations must protect all athletes, and there should be no discrimination based on nationality. It is the duty of all of us to keep sports and athletes away from politics.”

In 2019, the IOC stripped the IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition following an inquiry committee report into finance, governance, refereeing and judging. The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

The IBA will not run qualifying events for the 2024 Paris Games, but it does still hold world championships, the next being a men’s event in Uzbekistan next year.

Boxing, introduced on the Olympic program in 1904, was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games but can still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” Bach said last December.

On Sept. 23, the IBA suspended Ukraine’s boxing federation, citing “government interference.” Ukraine boxers are still allowed to compete with their flag and anthem.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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