ANAHEIM, Calif. — 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 U.S. 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 115.250, 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” that rolled to gold in Rio de Janeiro last summer 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 preliminary round, she knew it wasn’t anywhere hear her best. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals 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 to make the four-woman team that will head to Canada in October for the world championships. She will enter as one of the 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 during preliminaries but admitted he wanted to see something a little crisper in the finals. He got it. Eight of the women in the top 10 improved from their prelims scores on 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 championship 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.”