Five Alive! Oklahoma rallies to claim 5th national title
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Ragan Smith didn’t hear a thing. Not her Oklahoma teammates. Not coach K.J. Kindler. Not the roar of the crowd as the perfect score on floor exercise by Florida’s Trinity Thomas flashed.
A long career in gymnastics taught Smith to block it all out when you’re standing on the balance beam. The noise. The stakes. The standings. All of it.
“I was so locked in,” Smith said.
Sure looked like it.
Smith completed Oklahoma’s rally from last after one rotation to the program’s fifth national title on Saturday, her steely 9.9625 serving as the exclamation point as the Sooners edged Florida, Utah and Auburn in a taut final.
A year after finishing second to Michigan by less than a tenth, Oklahoma’s score of 198.2 was just enough to slip by the Gators (198.075), followed by the Utes (197.750) and the Tigers (197.350), who put together the best season in program history following the arrival of Olympic champion Sunisa Lee.
Finishing the meet with a raucous celebration is not exactly how Kindler thought things would work out for the Sooners after a so-so performance on floor that included Smith and teammate Jordan Bowers stepping out of bounds and left the Sooners staring up at the rest of the field after the first rotation.
Only briefly, as it turned out.
“What fight, what heart they had to fight back after floor,” Kindler said. “They didn’t count themselves out (and) pushed, not just on vault, but every single event after that.”
Oklahoma ended up posting the top team score on each of the other three events, hardly panicking despite knowing whatever margin for error it had was gone. Katherine Levasseur’s brilliant 9.9750 on vault provided a jolt and the Sooners were on their way.
“We caught fire on vault and I felt like we kept momentum in our favor from that point forward,” Kindler said. “But I mean, we had to swing momentum to begin with. So really proud of the way they just kept feeding off each other.”
Kindler sensed her team was rolling, so she did something she rarely does: she faded into the background, even with a title hanging in the balance.
“Sometimes you have to know when to not talk,” she said.
Even if it meant ditching her patented pre-beam pep talk. Kindler typically leans over to talk to each athlete before the event, giving last-minute pointers, maybe a little bit of motivation and whatever else she thinks the moment requires. The moment this time around required her to let her leaders do their job.
Senior Carly Woodard had been doing it all season. She came across a popular gymnastics blog early in the year and found a post that predicted it was safe to count the Sooners out.
“I saw that and immediately sent it to my senior class and was like, ‘What are we going to do about this?'” Woodard said.
Woodard printed it out and posted it in several spots in the team facility back in Norman, including the team refrigerator, a constant reminder that despite the program’s remarkable success — this week marked Oklahoma’s ninth straight trip to the national semifinals — doubters remained.
Consider them gone now thanks in part to a serious dose of grit from Smith. The 2017 U.S. national champion and an alternate on the 2016 Olympic and 2018 world championship teams went up last on beam. Moments earlier Thomas had put together her 12th perfect routine of the season, a dazzling floor exercise that drew the Gators within a tenth of a point.
The Florida fans began chanting “10! 10!” as she finished, and when the judges obliged, the roar reverberated across the Dickie’s Arena floor. Barely 50 feet away, Smith didn’t even notice. The same thing had happened earlier in the season when the Sooners faced the Gators in Gainesville. Smith posted a 9.875 just as Thomas dropped a 10.
Florida ended up winning that night. Smith made sure it didn’t happen again. She sprinted to her teammates following her dismount, and when her score assured the Sooners that they wouldn’t be caught, the 21-year-old was mobbed.
“I’ve never experienced this much team love before,” Smith said, her national championship trophy sitting next to her microphone as she spoke. “Everyone had my back.”
Thomas, who competed against Smith when the two were in elite gymnastics together, said Smith “knows how to get it done” but praised her teammates for pushing the Sooners to the limit.
“We went out there and we gave it all we had and we did our thing,” Thomas said. “We are still runners up, so I’m super proud of this team.”
Lee finished off a historic season by helping Auburn to its best finish in program history. Her all-around total of 36.250 was second-best of the day behind Thomas, just as it was during Thursday’s semifinals.
The 19-year-old star spent the aftermath taking selfies with fans before disappearing down a tunnel. Who knows when she’ll be seen on the competition floor again.
She plans to return to elite training, perhaps sooner rather than later. Either way, her impact on the Tigers will linger. Auburn was ranked 14th in the preseason. On the last day of the season, they were competing for a title. that’s progress.
“We proved tonight that we were in the Final Four conversation,” coach Jeff Graba said, “and that we weren’t an anomaly.”
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