Plenty has been said about the pivot athletes make as they transition from the elite level of women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) to NCAA. The college level is seen as a healthier environment for the athletes both physically and mentally. It also provides an opportunity for redemption.
The history of NCAA gymnastics often reads like a tale called “revenge of the alternates.” Athletes who narrowly missed out on their Olympic dreams have to settle for dominating the NCAA instead. Proving to everyone the Olympic-caliber talent was always there, but circumstances prevented them from fulfilling their ultimate dream.
In recent memory gymnasts such as Maggie Nichols, Peng Peng Lee, and of course the unforgettable Katelyn Ohashi have each had tremendous success at the NCAA level despite elite careers that didn’t quite pan out the way people had hoped. The same can even be said for Olympians such as Kyla Ross. With two All-Around medals and an Olympic gold medal, few gymnasts have had more success at the elite level than Kyla. But a growth spurt would push Ross out of WAG. Ending the career of a gymnast who appeared to still have a lot left in the tank.
The NCAA would prove that assertion right as Kyla would go on to be an iconic college gymnast as well as already being an iconic Olympian. Currently MyKayla Skinner is enjoying a revitalized elite career while in the middle of an NCAA career. Keeping the Olympic dream alive for a gymnast who only narrowly missed out on Rio. Even Jordyn Wieber has used the NCAA to rebound after experience heartbreak at the elite level. But for Jordyn, it came via the coaching route rather than actual competition.
Ross, Skinner, Maggie, Peng, and Ohashi experienced something that has been occurring at the NCAA level since before any of them were even born. They are following the same path Dee Dee Foster, Marie Roethlisberger, and Corrine Wright once walked. It was inevitable that Ragan Smith would become the latest example of a former elite gymnast finding redemption at the NCAA level.
In a recent article by ESPN, Ragan appears to have already blossomed at Oklahoma.
“Right when I got here, I noticed all the girls were smiling in the gym, and it doesn’t happen like that in club. I was like, ‘Wow, this looks so super fun. I want to be a part of this.’ And it really is completely fun. I picked Oklahoma because it felt like home, and it’s 100 percent met my expectations that way.”
The article also provided two critical pieces of information about her elite career that hasn’t been widely known in the past. The first new piece of information had to do with providing new details on just how injured Ragan was at the 2018 National Championships.
She competed at nationals in 2018 with three or four broken toes (she isn’t sure of the exact number) and finished 10th in the all-around, missing the national team.
The second new piece of information was commentary explaining why she quit elite gymnastics.
“I knew my time had come,” Smith said. “I kept having more injuries, so I was like, ‘I don’t want to waste another year of just having injuries and missing out on competing and doing what I love.’ I do miss competing at [the elite] level, but I don’t miss the hours and hours of training. I dedicated my life to the sport, and all of my time and everything in my life revolved around it. Being here has shown me another side of the sport I never thought I would experience, and I am loving it.”
In an article where Ragan comes off as positive, upbeat, and sharing the newfound joy she is experiencing, the above commentary was also Ragan opting to be blunt. Revealing a truer side of elite gymnastics where the athletes enjoy what they do, but at the same time are mentally drained, and not experiencing the happiness that they should be experiencing. By the end of their elite careers WAGs find themselves in a very different situation compared to the way they first came into the sport.
An activity that starting out as a childhood hobby evolved into an environment that is no longer about having fun, but putting in grueling levels of work in order to achieve the Olympic dream. Forgetting in the process that WAG is a sport where the bulk of its athletes are at the high school age. A topic that was broached on in the ESPN article.
Smith was homeschooled throughout high school to accommodate her busy training schedule, and she had little free time for friends or a social life, so her first semester at Oklahoma was a major adjustment as she navigated the classroom and living away from home for the first time.
The impact elite level Olympic sports has on the social development of athletes who reach a high level of competition at an extremely young age is something that has been discussed at length in the past. But it’s a topic that is important to highlight as it shows just how much the college environment is doing for athletes like Ragan. Its contributions to improving the overall health of the athletes is not limited to just inside the gym, but outside of it as well.
The ESPN article is both jolly and heartbreaking. On one hand it gives us a very positive insight into Ragan’s progression and revealing she has finally found a friendlier environment that is long overdue. On the other hand, it speaks harshly on how draining the sport is on its athletes. Something that was widely known, but Ragan giving us insights as to how much that personally impacted her is an entirely new revelation.
Before the start of the NCAA season it was widely believed that Ragan was going to be the next gymnast to crash the college scene. We also knew the NCAA environment was going to do wonders for her. With a great cast of supporting teammates, Ragan was going to blossom. The only real surprise is that before she has even taken the lineup in an official competition for Oklahoma, Ragan has already revealed a transformation for the better.
That is what NCAA gymnastics is really about. The success of an NCAA athlete is not about the number of medals they win, but how much it helps the athletes who are making their way from the elite level to the college level. That is the true measure of NCAA success and for Ragan Smith, she is already an example of a successful NCAA career.