ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Life is pretty good for Ragan Smith these days, and it’s hard to get much better than it was on Sunday.
In the afternoon, the 17-year-old Texan won her first national gymnastics title at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. And to celebrate, she planned to head down Katella Avenue to Disneyland — “to see the fireworks and stuff,” she clarifies.
Smith, an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, is filling the void left by her Rio teammates in the post-Olympic year. Building upon the name recognition from her Olympic foray — and from her popular Addams Family-themed floor exercise last year — Smith came into this season as the country’s “next big thing.”
Beginning with her win at the American Cup in March, she’s gone about proving it.
That continued on Sunday, when she scored 115.25 points over two days to easily outpace the field at the P&G Gymnastics Championships. Jordan Chiles, who finished second, was more than three points back at 111.85, followed by Riley McCusker at 111.65.
In addition to the all-around title, Smith won individual event titles in balance beam and floor exercise. McCusker won the uneven bars title, and Jade Carey won on vault.
For Smith, the results were confirmation of the hype.
“It feels amazing, all of my hard work has paid off,” she said. “I’m just excited to be U.S. champion.”
Smith, as one of the few “name” gymnasts at this year meet — along with fellow Olympic alternate Ashton Locklear — was a focal point throughout the competition, routinely getting the biggest cheers from the crowd.
The pressure never got to her.
While several gymnasts — many of whom are competing at this stage for the first time — made mistakes on Friday, the more veteran Smith rolled through with four mostly clean routines to take a 1.3-point lead. Only an awkward landing on the balance beam stood out on Sunday, as Smith bettered her scores in three of the four apparatuses and more than doubled her lead in the all-around.
Smith’s coach, 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal-Burdette, said you can never tell how a gymnast will react to attention until it happens, and she found out about Smith at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials last summer.
“She ate it up,” Zmeskal-Burdette said, “and has been hungry for it all year.”
If Smith was the steady veteran on Sunday, the breakout star was Chiles, who provided the viral moment of the day when she turned a botched wolf turn — spinning around on one foot as your other leg extends out to the side — into a standing 1080. GIFs of the figure skating-esque cover up were circulating Twitter within minutes.
“I was kind of crooked at the beginning and so I didn’t want to fall, so I stood up but then I realized I kept turning,” she explained. “After a while I didn’t realize I was still turning, so I told myself, ‘Wait, why am I still turning?’”
Finally she stopped, finished her routine and stuck her dismount. The routine resulted in her highest score of the year at 14.2, and helped her bypass McCusker to take second place.
Chiles, 16 and in her first year as a senior, also had the competition’s highest score on vault, despite falling on her difficult Amanar vault on Sunday. (Carey won the national title because she was the only gymnast to complete the required second vault on both nights.)
And to top it all off, Chiles competed this week with a fever.
“I’m proud of myself because to be honest I haven’t competed in a year, and on top of that I have been sick, so I’m very excited,” she said.
Fellow first-year senior McCusker, for her part, said she had no regrets with her performance, which comes just weeks after she was sidelined with injuries.
“I’m definitely not disappointed at all,” she said. “I am so happy just to be here.”
In addition to national titles, the top women this weekend are competing for spots on the team going to the world championships, which take place Oct. 2-8 in Montreal. USA Gymnastics will name the four-person team on Sept. 21, following a selection camp in Texas.
The top three all-around finishers positioned themselves well to take three of those spots. Others likely to be in contention include Locklear, who was second on uneven bars but struggled on her only other event, balance beam; Carey, who finished second on floor and has an arsenal on vault, if she can hit it; and Trinity Thomas, who finished fourth in the all-around and top-three on balance beam and floor exercise.
As for Smith, the question is less about qualifying for the world championships, and more about what she will do there.
“Right now, I just want to keep riding this wave of confidence for her,” Zmeskal-Burdette said.
But not before some fireworks.
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.