It’s a season of change for USA Gymnastics: Martha Karolyi, long-time coordinator of the women’s national team, retired after leading the U.S. squad to a second consecutive Olympic team gold medal last summer. FIG, the sport’s international governing body, issued a new code of points, changing the way some combinations of skills are scored. And none of the dazzling “Final Five” gymnasts, who dominated the mats in Rio, are training for competition this season.
Enter Ragan Smith, the Rio alternate who many think can step up and lead the U.S. team to further glory on the international stage.
The 16-year-old from Lewisville, Texas, didn’t disappoint at the 2017 AT&T American Cup on Saturday in Newark, New Jersey, where she followed in the footsteps of world champions including Simone Biles, Shannon Miller and her own coach, Kim Zmeskal-Burdette, to win the all-around crown and extend the U.S. women’s winning streak at the event to 15 straight years.
“This is all definitely new to me, because in 2015 and 2016, I was with girls like Aly (Raisman) and Simone and all of them, and they were definitely the leaders and I was definitely the one following them,” Smith said. “Now it’s kind of changed. I can’t believe this year is already here. It’s crazy.”
“It’s definitely been the flip of the calendar,” Zmeskal-Burdette, who trains Smith at Texas Dreams Gymnastics, said. “She’s taken on the leadership role very, very well. It’s interesting when you see a whole generation basically not at (training) camp, when you’re used to seeing them. It’s definitely taken a couple of months (to get used to), even for me. But Ragan has stepped in.”
On Saturday in Newark, Smith overcame an uncharacteristic fall off of the balance beam to win the event with 56.099 points, defeating two-time Japanese Olympian Asuka Teramoto by 1.868 points. She gained the competition’s highest scores on vault and floor, where she reprised the popular “The Addam’s Family” routine she used last season, when she placed fifth in the all-around at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
The Texas teen was especially pleased with her uneven bars routine, which had been tweaked to reflect the new code of points.
“I thought I hit my handstands pretty well,” Smith said. “I just breathed through the whole thing and I just kept calm. I was like, ‘OK, I can do this, I’m almost there.’ When I stuck the dismount, I was so happy.”
Keeping Smith calm and collected on the floor is a big part of Zmeskal-Burdette’s job, and the coach thinks her athlete has made great strides since graduating to the senior ranks last season.
“She has a go button — she just wants to go hard,” Zmeskal-Burdette said after the event. “We are trying to give her the tools to make her feel like a smarter gymnast, not just a talented gymnast. We tell her, ‘Don’t always push go. Stay calm, even if there is a little crazy going on around you.’ Today was a big step for her.”
Added Smith: “I feel like for me, I can’t stay maximum focus all the time or I will lose my head and get a headache. I can’t go too hard, or I get crazy. I figured out that if I get too intense, I can’t do my stuff.”
Despite this win, Smith’s first in a world cup event, it will be a while before we see the athlete again. She’s not slated to compete until the U.S. Classic, to be held in Chicago at the end of July. Both Valeri Liukin, Karolyi’s successor as national team coordinator, and Zmeskal-Burdette think she should take a break from competition to go back to basics in the gym, re-work additional routines for the new code of points and, most important, add new skills.
“She needs some actual down time,” Zmeskal-Burdette said. “The goal is (to peak) later in the year, at the P&G Championships (in August) and world championships (in October).”
Smith is also just getting back to full strength following surgery in October, when a bone chip was removed from her ankle. She spent much of her off time at the American Cup with an ice pack applied to the area.
“We’ve been taking every precaution, spotting as much as we can, go soft mats, keep the tape on,” Zmeskal-Burdette said. “Fortunately, it’s been feeling good.”
The injury didn’t keep Smith from attending USA Gymnastics’ centralized monthly training camps, where Liukin and other officials assess athletes’ competition readiness.
“I came back from the Olympics, I was in a (protective walking) boot for three weeks and then I had surgery,” Smith said. “After that I pretty much had to snap it together and get in shape, because I got out of my boot and two weeks later I was already at camp, doing just basic tumbling. The next camp, it was already full routines, almost. Last camp (in February) it was four routines, and I did really well.”
Smith isn’t the only up-and-comer on the horizon. Riley McCusker, who competed as a junior last season, impressed Liukin at February’s camp and won the coveted second U.S. spot at American Cup. The 15-year-old from Brielle, New Jersey, had some rough spots, including falls on the uneven bars and balance beam, but gained senior international experience and is expected to step it up later this year.
Other names to watch for include Morgan Hurd, assigned to a world cup meet in Stuttgart, Germany, later this month; and another Rio Olympic alternate, MyKayla Skinner, who is competing for the University of Utah and might return to elite competition this summer. There are many others, promised Rhonda Faehn, USA Gymnastics’ senior vice president for the women’s program.
“The camps we’ve had since Valeri became coordinator have been incredibly strong, successful and positive,” she said. “We’ll have new faces continually coming up.”