Ragan Smith, after watching in Rio, leads P&G Championships
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith admits it’s a little weird to look at the scoreboard during a gymnastics meet and not see Simone Biles’ name at the top.
“Nobody can beat Simone,” Smith said of the Olympic champion. “She’s unstoppable. She’s amazing.”
And also taking a break following her historic Rio performance, leaving the 17-year-old Smith as the standard bearer for a program in the midst of a transition.
It’s a role Smith insists she’s ready for, and on the opening night of the P&G Championships, Smith looked the part.
Sassy on floor, steady on beam and solid everywhere else, Smith posted an all-around score of 57.400 on Friday.
That’s 1.3 points clear of Riley McCusker during two hours that saw the sea of new faces following in the wake of the Final Five deal with more than a fair amount of nerves.
Smith can fall and still win the national all-around title on the final day of competition Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).
“It’s kind of nice, like, having a new generation coming up,” Smith, who is coached by 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal Burdette, said on NBCSN. “I think it’s a little less pressure, but I still kind of feel like it’s the same because I had no idea what was going to happen last year.”
The second- and third-highest scores Friday actually came from the earlier junior division. With no team event at October’s world championships, senior depth is less necessary this year, the first nationals with zero Olympians since 2008.
Ashton Locklear, like Smith an Olympic team alternate, put together a typically precise routine on uneven bars but fell off the balance beam.
Alyona Shchennikova, who won the U.S. Classic last month, saw any legitimate chance at winning a national title evaporate when a nightmarish beam routine sent her tumbling to eighth.
Morgan Hurd stepped out of bounds on her floor routine and shorted a landing to wind up sixth.
New national team coordinator Valeri Liukin, who mentored most of the women in the field while they were in the U.S. developmental program, allowed things didn’t exactly go smoothly.
Yet he’s hardly concerned. This is kind of how it’s supposed to go.
“This is the first year after Olympic Games, and it’s tough, historically always,” Liukin said. “I’m just hoping it’s not only for us.”
Smith seemed at ease in the spotlight. Save two bobbles on beam — where she still posted the highest score of the night — Smith avoided the kind of missteps that were commonplace elsewhere.
For now, that’s enough.
Smith captured the AT&T American Cup on March 4 before a minor injury in the spring interrupted her training. No biggie.
She was back in form in front an audience that included Biles, who told NBCSN viewers she returned to the gym two weeks ago, the first step of her planned comeback.
It will still be months — if not longer — before Biles will be competition ready.
“No plans yet,” Liukin said. “We [are] just hoping that she’s coming back and she comes back as Simone Biles.”
Either way, Liukin is confident the program remains on solid ground. Yes, this group doesn’t exactly have the star power of the Final Five that brought home four golds, four silvers and a bronze.
Then again, neither does any other country.
“We’re just starting, they’re brand new,” Liukin said. “We need time to build it.”
While Locklear remains among the best on the world on uneven bars — she posted a 14.35 using a watered-down routine that will include upgrades between now and October’s world championships in Montreal — she faltered on beam, coming off in the middle of her routine and then taking a big step on her dismount.
McCusker, who won the Jesolo Trophy on April 1, put together an elegant bars set that scored a 14.55 (best of the night) and was nearly Smith’s match on beam.
Not bad considering she spent a considerable portion of the spring and early summer with casts on one of her feet and one of her wrist.
McCusker wasn’t cleared to do her full bars routine together until three weeks ago.
There she was on Friday night making a pretty solid case that she should be in the mix for the four-woman world team named after a camp next month.
“I still have a watered-down vault, I still have a lot of stuff to add on beam,” McCusker said. “But I’m starting to get used to being on the podium and more confident in what I can do.”
Only McCusker, Jordan Chiles — whose Amanar vault earned a 15.15, the best on any apparatus — and Margzetta Frazier head into Sunday’s finals within two points of Smith, who wasn’t getting ahead of herself.
“It feels great but I definitely can do better,” Smith said. “[But] I mean, I like being on the top, so it kind of feels good.”
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