Road to Rio

Local gymnast earns Olympic alternate spot


Vanessa Davis

Gymnast Ragan Smith trains at Texas Dreams gym in Coppell. She practices for over six hours every day.

Lewisville resident Ragan Smith held her breath as she waited for her score. After months of training and two days of competition, her fate was boiled down to a 15 minute waiting period. As she sat among the nation’s most talented gymnasts, only one thought went through each of their minds: who will represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro.

The country’s most elite gymnasts had gathered in San Jose, California to compete in the women’s gymnastics Olympic trials. For 16-year-old Ragan, this was the opportunity to prove that she belonged on the podium, representing the United States. While she waited to hear if she made the team, tears streamed down her face. Although the competition was over, Ragan’s nerves remained on edge. All she could do was hope her performance was good enough to secure her a spot. As the door opened, the gymnasts knew that the judges had made their decision. Ragan listened intently for her name and place. Fifth.

Her heart sank. Despite being named fifth all around, Ragan had not made the Olympic team. She knew she had given her best performance, yet it wasn’t enough. She said was disappointed that she would not compete with the team, but was excited that she was allowed to represent team USA as an alternate.

“The energy was there and the nerves were there,” Ragan said. “It was an incredible experience just to go out there and hit my routines and do the best I could. Even though I got fifth all around, I’m just happy and proud of what I did.”

Since she was two years old, Ragan has been devoted to the world of gymnastics. Although she began the sport to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she has developed a brand of her own. As she began refining her skills, Ragan knew that her gymnastic career could lead her to international competitions. Ragan’s mom, Kerry, said that as a former college gymnast, she understands the kind of dedication it takes to excel.

“It’s very special,” Kerry said. “I kind of know what she goes through and how hard the work is and the injuries. I get it.”

Ragan and her family decided to move from their home of 13 years in Georgia to Lewisville to be closer to Texas’ elite gyms. She was excited to begin training at Texas Dreams gym in Coppell under former Olympian Kim Zmeskal. While this move meant that she would have to leave her friends behind, Ragan knew that her gym in Georgia could only take her so far.

“[My family] sacrificed that for me and I sacrificed that for myself,” Ragan said. “Here, I like it a lot. The gym is better here and the coaches are better. That’s how I got this far.”

Ragan’s move was a strategic step towards the Olympics. While Ragan’s fifth place at the Olympic trials meant she would not compete on the team, she would still have the opportunity to travel to Brazil and train just like the other Olympians.

It just feels amazing whenever someone’s up there on the podium. Whether you’re an alternate for the team, no matter what, you’re the best in the world.”

— Ragan Smith, gymnast

After six months of continuous training, Ragan was headed for Rio. While her years of practicing made her more than prepared as a gymnast, not much could have prepped her for the new culture. As soon as she stepped off of the plane, she noted the towering Brazilian slums and widespread poverty. Ragan said that her previous international travels to countries like Italy helped in adjusting and understanding the new country.

“It was heartbreaking to see how poor the country was,” Ragan said. “It was just a different atmosphere and different surroundings.”

Upon arrival, Ragan began training almost immediately. She was shocked at the state of the training centers. She said the dated facilities and rundown equipment were hard to get used to.

She spent most of her days continuously working her body. Although she was an alternate, she spent more time in the gym than the other girls on the team. While the preparation was tiring, Ragan said it prepared her to compete at a moment’s notice in case one of the other girls became injured.

“[I wish] we didn’t have to pound our bodies as much but I definitely think it was worth it in the long run,” Ragan said. “They pushed us so hard, and that’s why we

’re on the top and not just intermediate.”

Although she and the other alternates stayed at the alternate village, separate from the other Olympians, she had the opportunity to meet several members of the U.S. delegation. While she was at the training complex, she

Gymnast Ragan Smith met LA Clipper's player DeAndre Jordan at the 2016 Olympics. Their height difference made this photo go viral this summer.
Gymnast Ragan Smith met LA Clipper’s player DeAndre Jordan at the 2016 Olympics. Their height difference made this photo go viral this summer.

met basketball players Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan. Ragan was starstruck when Jordan approached her and struck up a conversation. The two took a picture which quickly circulated throughout the internet. The image highlighted the stark difference between 4 ft.6 in. gymnast and the 6 ft.11in. basketball player.

“When it went viral I was like ‘wow, he’s that much taller than me,’” Ragan said. “It was just really intimidating whenever we were on the court with them. It was just a crazy height difference.”

In addition to meeting Jordan, Ragan was able to get to know her fellow gymnasts. Although she did not have many opportunities to mingle with her teammates due to their rigorous training schedule, one day they talked for hours. Ragan said that whenever she saw one of the girls on the podium, she felt great pride and knew she was truly part of the team.

“It just feels amazing whenever someone’s up there on the podium,” Ragan said. “Whether you’re an alternate for the team, no matter what, you’re the best in the world.”

Towards the end of her stay in Rio de Janeiro, Ragan was able to relax and explore the city. As she walked along the beaches, she felt the cool ocean water touch her toes. She went through gift shops buying handfuls of key chains and t-shirts for friends to celebrate her time in Brazil. Ragan enjoyed her last moments in Rio that marked the beginning of her Olympic career.

While Ragan knew she could have done well, and possibly medaled, as a member of the Olympic team, she said she learned a lot from experience as an alternate. Ragan is continuing her training, and knows that her time in Brazil has prepared her for the next Olympics.

“I knew I always dreamed of going to the Olympics, I never knew I could come this far and just have my dream come true,” Ragan said.