Ragan Smith and her coach now have the same title.
On the 25th anniversary of Kim Zmeskal Burdette’s third national championship, Smith won her first Sunday night at the P&G Championships. Next year, when the video montage of past national champions airs before the competition, they’ll have double reason to watch.
“It hit me today: I want her on that screen. I want to see her in that video next year,” Zmeskal Burdette said.
Next up: Seeing if Smith can win the all-around title at the world championships, just as Zmeskal Burdette did in 1991. Worlds are Oct. 2-8 in Montreal, and the four-woman team will be announced after a selection camp next month.
Smith finished with 115.250 points, more than three in front of Jordan Chiles. In a sport that’s usually decided by tenths and hundredths of a point, that qualifies as a rout.
While the final margin might have been a surprise, Smith’s victory was not. The year after the Olympics is always one of transition, and this one is no different.
The Final Five was at the competition simply as spectators, watching from a suite. The gymnasts who will form the next American juggernaut are still juniors; Maile O’Keefe and Emma Malabuyo posted such big scores they would have finished 2-3 in the senior competition.
But it’s one thing to be the favorite and another to live up to the hype. Smith did both.
“She’s the leader of the team,” said Valeri Liukin, the women’s national team coordinator. “She feels that. She knows she needs to lead this team to the next generation and she looked like it.”
Smith, the alternate on last year’s Rio Olympics team, was one of the few veterans, and her experience showed. While other gymnasts bobbled and wobbled, she was solid both days of competition.
“It feels amazing,” said Smith, who was planning to celebrate with a trip to Disneyland to watch the fireworks. “All my hard work has paid off and I’m just excited to be the U.S. champion.”
Oh, sure. She had slight mistakes — it’s a wonder she stayed on the balance beam, twice landing aerial tricks with her foot on the very edge of the apparatus — but was clearly a cut above everyone else.
While most gymnasts might as well be tumbling to elevator music for as much as they incorporate it into their routines, Smith timed her dance elements perfectly to the beat. When she did steps to a Latin-sounding portion, it was easy to imagine her dancing in a plaza in Spain.
But most telling was that when she finished, she looked happy but not overly satisfied.
“She’s a solid elite athlete,” Liukin said. “And we still have room to improve.”
So do Chiles and Riley McCusker, who managed to finish third despite being on crutches (torn heel ligament) and in a wrist cast (growth plate) only a few weeks ago.
McCusker was second to Smith for almost the entire meet. But she stumbled out of a turn on floor exercise and landed her last tumbling pass out of bounds. That opened the door for Chiles, who passed her on the final event.
And that was even with Chiles botching one of her first skills on balance beam.
Chiles was supposed to do a wolf turn, spinning while crouched on one leg, the other extended to the side. But she got off balance and had to stand up to keep herself from falling.
She somehow managed to keep rotating — her coaches counted an additional three revolutions — turning her mistake into a gymternet meme.
Chiles’ score, a 14.2, put her 0.2 points ahead of McCusker.
“I’m definitely not disappointed at all,” said McCusker, who resumed doing full routines less than three weeks ago. “I’m just so happy just to be here.”
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.