Ragan Smith

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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 She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.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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U.S. women’s gymnastics team for world championships qualifying named

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USA Gymnastics
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As expected, Simone Biles must outscore a U.S. teammate to make the world championships all-around final.

The Olympic all-around gold medalist and three-time world champion is one of three U.S. women slated to compete on all four apparatuses in qualifying at worlds in Doha on Saturday. The top two out of Biles, 2017 World all-around champion Morgan Hurd and two-time U.S. bronze medalist Riley McCusker advance to next Thursday’s all-around final.

Biles, Hurd and McCusker are joined on the U.S. women’s team for qualifying by first-year seniors Grace McCallum (floor exercise, uneven bars and vault) and Kara Eaker (balance beam).

Ragan Smith, the 2017 U.S. all-around champion who has struggled with injuries the last year, was named the alternate.

In Tuesday’s team final, nations are reduced to three gymnasts per apparatus, with all three scores counting.

MORE: World Championships TV Schedule

Biles, eyeing a female record-breaking fourth world title, is used to competition within the U.S. team just to make all-around finals.

In 2013, Biles and Kyla Ross outscored McKayla Maroney in worlds qualifying, then went one-two in the final.

In 2014, Biles and Ross made it ahead of MyKayla Skinner and Madison Kocian. Biles and Ross would share the podium again, this time with Ross taking bronze.

In 2015, Biles and Gabby Douglas kept Aly Raisman out of the world all-around final. In Rio, Raisman made it over Douglas. Both times, the U.S. went one-two in the all-around final.

Every time, Biles safely qualified in the No. 1 spot overall and at least 1.8 points clear of the No. 3 American.

Given that, the competition between Hurd and McCusker for the second U.S. all-around final spot should be among the most intriguing of qualifying.

Hurd outscored McCusker by. 55 between two days at the U.S. Championships in August. McCusker was second to Biles at a selection camp two weeks ago, two points better than Hurd.

Gymnasts also vie for apparatus finals spots in qualifying.

The top eight women per apparatus make each of the four event finals, maximum two per country. That’s where McCallum and Eaker can make their mark individually. McCallum was second to Biles on floor at the selection camp. Eaker had the top beam score in the selection camp all-around.

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U.S. women’s gymnastics team named for world championships

Morgan Hurd, Simone Biles, Riley McCusker
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Simone Biles was joined on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team for the world championships in two weeks by all of the other big names, including the 2017 U.S. and world all-around champions during her break from the sport.

Morgan Hurd (2017 World all-around champ), Ragan Smith (2017 U.S. all-around champ), Riley McCuskerGrace McCallum and Kara Eaker were named to the worlds team on Friday by USA Gymnastics. Biles clinched a spot by winning the all-around at a selection camp in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday.

USA Gymnastics must designate one of the six gymnasts as its alternate before world competition begins in Doha. The Americans are clear favorites to earn the team title, which they have done at the last two Olympics and last three world championships.

Four women can compete per apparatus in qualifying. In the team final, it’s the same three-up, three-count format as at the Olympics. No more than two gymnasts per nation qualify for individual finals.

If the U.S. team final roster went straight off best scores from Thursday’s selection camp all-around, it would look like this:

Vault — Biles, Hurd, McCallum
Uneven Bars — McCusker, Biles, Hurd
Balance Beam — Eaker, McCusker, Biles
Floor Exercise — Biles, McCallum, McCusker
Alternate: Smith

If it went off best average scores from the U.S. Championships and Thursday’s camp, it would be:

Vault — Biles, McCallum, Hurd
Uneven Bars — McCusker, Biles, Hurd
Balance Beam — Biles, Eaker, McCusker
Floor Exercise — Biles, McCallum, Hurd/McCusker (tie)
Alternate: Smith

A look at each of the six gymnasts:

Simone Biles
Four-time Olympic champion
Three-time world all-around champion
Undefeated for five years in the all-around

An overwhelming favorite for a fourth world all-around title, which would break her tie with Russian Svetlana Khorkina for the most titles by a woman. Biles has a chance to earn medals in every event after she swept the five golds at the U.S. Championships in August. The toughest is uneven bars, the only event Biles did not earn a medal in Rio (and has never done so at a worlds).

Morgan Hurd
2017 World all-around champion
2018 U.S. all-around silver medalist

The surprise world’s best gymnast in 2017. The Delaware resident went from fifth at 2016 junior nationals to sixth at 2017 senior nationals to winning the world all-around title in Montreal last October. She’s followed that with a strong season, winning the American Cup in March and placing second to Biles at nationals. However, McCusker beat Hurd at the U.S. Classic in July, and McCusker and McCallum outscored her at the selection camp.

Ragan Smith
2017 U.S. all-around champion
2016 Olympic alternate

Smith looked unlikely to make this team back at nationals in August. She placed 10th there, competing with broken toes and lingering pain from an ankle injury that knocked her out of the 2017 Worlds, where she was the favorite. She bounced back at the selection camp with a fifth-place finish. Smith is an all-arounder, but with Biles, Hurd and McCusker posting the top scores this season, it would be hard to get into all four events at worlds, assuming she isn’t named the alternate. Smith is coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

Riley McCusker
2017, 2018 U.S. all-around bronze medalist

McCusker made her first world team after withdrawing before last year’s selection camp with an injury. She was second to Biles at the U.S. Classic in July and the selection camp Thursday, making a strong bid to join Biles in the all-around in Doha. It looks to come down to Hurd and McCusker for that second and last all-around spot in the world final. McCusker is coached by Maggie Haney, who guided Laurie Hernandez to the Rio Olympics.

Grace McCallum
2018 U.S. all-around, fourth place

With Eaker, one of two first-year seniors on the world team. Last year’s promising juniors were Maile O’Keefe and Emma Malabuyo, whose scores at 2017 Nationals would have placed second and third in the senior division. But neither O’Keefe nor Malabuyo were healthy for the whole selection season and didn’t make it to the camp. Enter McCallum, who was 11th at 2017 junior nationals before her senior breakout in August. She was third in the selection camp all-around and second to Biles on floor exercise.

Kara Eaker
2018 U.S. balance beam silver medalist

Eaker, 15 years old like McCallum, was third at 2017 junior nationals but has established herself within the U.S. senior team as one of its best beam workers. Only Biles outscored her there at nationals, and she had the highest score in the selection camp all-around on beam by 1.05 points. If neither is the alternate, Eaker and McCallum would be the first pair of 15-year-olds to compete at an Olympics or worlds for the U.S. since Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney in 2011.

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