By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 19, 2017, 2:37 a.m. (ET)
Ragan Smith competes on the uneven bars at the P&G Gymnastics Championships at Honda Center on Aug. 18, 2017 in Anaheim, Calif.

 

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Ragan Smith knows she’s the favorite to win her first national gymnastics title this weekend, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m just taking every moment of it, and loving it,” the 17-year-old Texan said Friday, after she posted the highest all-around score of the first night at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Anaheim, California.

With the 2016 Olympians sitting out this year’s national championships, Smith, an alternate on that Olympic team, came into the competition at the Honda Center as the gymnast to beat.

And while wobbles and falls were common among the gymnasts, many of them competing on this stage for the first time, Smith delivered a clean performance that included the top scores in balance beam and floor exercise, as well as the top all-around score of 57.4. Riley McCusker was second at 56.1, followed by Jordan Chiles at 55.85.

National champions will be crowned after the second night of competition on Sunday.

With the usual post-Olympic turnover, Smith was one of the few “name” gymnasts coming into this weekend, her status boosted by a win at the American Cup in March. With the crowd cheering on each of her routines, Smith played off their energy, particularly during her energetic new floor exercise routine.

“I love smiling for the crowd,” she said.

Valeri Liukin, the new national team coordinator, was also smiling after his first night at nationals, but he had a clear message for Smith.

“Ragan did a great job, but she can do better, she can do a lot better,” he said.

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While Smith came in ready for the spotlight, McCusker said she was just happy to be here after battling injuries up until just before last month’s U.S. Classic.

“Let's just say I was on crutches and had a wrist cast at the same time,” she said.

With the internal pressure dialed down, the New Jersey native posted the night’s top score on uneven bars and the second best score on balance beam. However, a full hop and step back on her Yurchenko vault scored just 13.25, which left her tied for 15th in that event.

Still, she’s not changing her mindset going into night two.

“I just want to stay focused and calm throughout the meet and do my gymnastics the way I know how to do it,” she said.

The backdrop of this weekend’s competition is the world championships, which take place Oct. 2-8 in Montreal. The U.S. will bring four women and have three spots on each apparatus during the qualifying round. That means the team could go with three all-arounders, or it could use fewer all-arounders and split the remaining spots between specialists

Ashton Locklear, who like Smith was an alternate for the Rio Olympic team, is aiming to be one of those specialists.

Showcasing her long lines and methodic style, the 19-year-old Locklear posted the third highest uneven bars score of the night at 14.35, but in her only other event she fell off the balance beam and scored just 12.8.

With plans to add more difficulty to her uneven bars routine in the coming weeks, however, she said she feels good going into Sunday.

“I have the endurance, and I still have the quality,” she said. “There are some things I still need to clean up, but I think it’s pretty close.”

Among the other gymnasts who made a strong case for specialists spots on Friday was Chiles, who posted the top vault score, and Jade Carey, who was second on vault and tied for second on floor exercise. Trinity Thomas had top-three scores on beam and floor. Meanwhile, Alyona Shchennikova, the U.S. Classic all-around champ, had the second best score on uneven bars.

As for Liukin, he preached patience as the next generation steps in for the most dominant Olympic gymnastics team in U.S. history.

“They’re all brand new except Ragan is the only one who was out tonight from the Olympic team,” he said. “The rest of the girls, they’re young. We have a very young senior national team, so we’re basically starting from scratch. So with that we need the time to build a national team.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.