Nick Zaccardi

OlympicTalk Editor
AP

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 She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.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 has made any of the last three 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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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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Rafael Nadal beats Nick Kyrgios, who honored Kobe Bryant at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal left the muttering and the preening, the underarm serving and the ’tweening, to his younger, flashier opponent, Nick Kyrgios.

Surely, Nadal was content to collect the win in the latest installment of their rivalry.

The No. 1-ranked Nadal kept his thoughts to himself and limited his shot-making to the more traditional variety in an entertaining 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) victory over home-crowd favorite Kyrgios on Monday to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals and get closer to a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title.

These two guys don’t like each other. But Nadal had nothing but nice things to say after improving his head-to-head record to 5-3 against Kyrgios.

“When he wants to play, when he is focused on what he’s doing, I think he’s a very important player for our sport,” Nadal said, “because he has a big talent and is one of these players that can be very, very interesting for the crowd.”

While Kyrgios was up to some of his usual trick shots and antics, what he never did was waver in his effort, something folks often accuse him of.

“Today,” Nadal said, “I think he played very serious, tried all the time his best.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

It certainly meant a lot to Kyrgios, who said: “I’m shattered to have lost tonight. These are the matches that I want to win the most.”

Here’s how the elevated stakes and tension affected both men: At 5-all in the pivotal third-set tiebreaker, Kyrgios double-faulted. That offered up a gift-wrapped set point. But Nadal failed to take advantage because he double-faulted right back.

Still, two points later, the 23rd-seeded Kyrgios put a forehand into the net, and the set was Nadal’s. Not long after, Kyrgios double-faulted again to get broken at love.

That put Nadal ahead 2-1 in the fourth, seemingly in charge.

“Against Nick,” Nadal would say afterward, “you are never (in) control.”

Sure enough, Nadal faltered while serving for the win at 5-4, double-faulting to create a pair of break points, the second of which Kyrgios converted with a jumping forehand and celebrated by throwing his head back and screaming. Spectators rose and roared and waved their Australian flags in support of the 24-year-old from Canberra.

“A scary game,” Nadal called it, acknowledging he was hampered by nerves.

But he regrouped and pulled the win out in the closing tiebreaker, which ended with Kyrgios putting a forehand into the net.

Sure, the cool, breezy conditions played to Nadal’s advantage and dulled Kyrgios’ power-based style. But there also was this: Nadal finished with more than twice as many winners as unforced errors, 64-27.

“I’d have to win a point three times to win a point,” Kyrgios said.

Kyrgios delivered 25 aces and some memorable moments — including walking out on court and warming up for the match in a No. 8 Los Angeles Lakers jersey to honor Kobe Bryant, the five-time NBA champion and 18-time All-Star who died in a helicopter crash Sunday at age 41.

Kyrgios switched to a No. 24 Bryant shirt for his post-match news conference and described himself as emotional at the news.

A video tribute to Bryant was played on the Rod Laver Arena scoreboards before Monday’s match.

On Wednesday, the 33-year-old Nadal’s 41st career Grand Slam quarterfinal will be against No. 5 Dominic Thiem in a rematch of the past two French Open finals, both won by Nadal.

The other men’s quarterfinal on the top half of the bracket is No. 7 Alexander Zverev vs. No. 15 Stan Wawrinka.

Nadal vs. Kyrgios was fascinating to watch, in part because of the quality of the play and in part because of the subplot of their negative feelings toward each other.

“When I criticized him in the past,” Nadal said, “it’s because I thought he did a couple of things that are not right and not the right image for our sport and for the kids.”

They traded verbal barbs through the media last year after Kyrgios beat Nadal at a tournament in Mexico (which is why a spectator kept yelling “Acapulco!” in the stadium Monday). When they met again at Wimbledon in July — with, coincidentally, the exact same scoreline as Monday — Kyrgios ripped a shot right at Nadal’s midsection, then refused to apologize.

Kyrgios came into this one following a five-set win that lasted nearly 4½ hours, sapping energy and emotion, and it appeared to hurt him in the early going.

Nadal, meanwhile, looked like he was just back from vacation — some fishing, some golf, some beach time — and fresh as can be. That spin-filled forehand of his was at its uppercutting best: Nadal accumulated eight forehand winners before Kyrgios managed to produce one.

The entire tenor shifted in the second set, which was preceded by a bit of confusion for Nadal. He left two rackets at his sideline seat while he headed to the bathroom after the opening set, telling a ballkid he wanted one re-strung. When Nadal returned, he realized the wrong one had been removed.

The show must go on, though, and Nadal generated three break points in the first game of the second set. Kyrgios erased the first with a 132 mph ace. The second vanished amid some of his typical outrageousness: Kyrgios chased down a lob and, back to the net, flicked the ball through his legs to prolong a point that ended when he bashed a forehand that forced an error. He took care of the third in a more traditional manner.

And then, 63 minutes in, Kyrgios earned his first break opportunity and used it for a 3-1 lead with a squash forehand passing shot that Nadal let float by. The ball landed on the back of the baseline and Kyrgios marked the occasion with a leap and a fist in the air.

Soon enough, it was a set apiece, and Kyrgios was strutting to the sideline with a towel dangling from his teeth.

Truthfully, Kyrgios should be “Mic’d Up” every time he plays, and his patter was strong, whether he was complimenting Nadal with “Too good!” or admonishing his entourage to “Say something!” or sarcastically criticizing himself by shouting “Well done!” after a bad backhand or smacking himself in the head with his racket.

Later he received a warning for destroying a racket by spiking it after flubbing a shot in the third-set tiebreaker. The way the fourth set ended probably angered Kyrgios, too, but he quickly packed up his things and left.

Comparing this loss with his last one to Nadal, Kyrgios said: “I felt a lot closer this time.”

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