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Smith vaults to lead at US championships

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ragan Smith looks ready to lead the next wave of U.S. women's gymnasts.

The 17-year-old took the early lead at the national championships Friday, surviving on a night when the rest of the field dealt with a fair amount of nerves. Smith posted a score of 57.400, more than a point clear of Riley McCusker. Jordan Chiles used a spectacular performance on vault to move into third place. The finals are Sunday.

Smith, an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, is the closest thing the women's program has to a star while Olympic champion Simone Biles and the rest of the "Final Five" ponder their futures. Smith seemed at ease in the spotlight. Save for a couple of bobbles on beam — where she still posted the highest score of the night — Smith was steady if not always spectacular.

For now, that's enough.

Smith captured the American Cup in March 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 TV viewers she returned to the gym earlier this month, the first step in a potential comeback.

It will still be months — if not longer — before Biles will be competition ready if it even happens at all.

Yet the program believes it's in good hands anyway, as new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin breaks in a new group of seniors looking to continue the dominance that seemed to become the U.S.'s birthright under Martha Karolyi.

Smith and Ashton Locklear — also an Olympic alternate last summer — are the most experienced international competitors. Smith looked the part. Locklear, not quite so much. While she remains among the best on the world on uneven bars — she posted a 14.350 using a watered down routine that will include upgrades between now and the world championships this fall — Locklear 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 Cup in April, put together an elegant bars set that scored a 14.550 (the best of the night) and was nearly Smith's match on beam.

Ragan Smith competes on the balance beam during the opening round of the U.S. women's gymnastics championships Friday. [MARK J. TERRILL/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]