Ragan Smith is finally healthy -- and excited for her first season at Oklahoma

Ragan Smith begins her first season with the No.1-ranked Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday. Joshua R. Gateley for ESPN

NORMAN, Oklahoma -- Ragan Smith walked into the Sam Viersen Center on a warm July day last year and realized she had no idea what she was doing. A former world and national champion and 2016 Olympic alternate, she thought she had experienced it all in the sport, but this was a first.

In all of her years in gymnastics, the then-18-year-old had always had a coach tell her what to do. But here she was, at her first unofficial practice at Oklahoma (NCAA rules prohibit official practices in the summer), and she felt completely clueless. It was an immediate reminder of just how different the next phase of her gymnastics career was going to be.

"I kept looking around for someone to ask, 'What do you recommend I work on today?' and waiting for an assignment," Smith said.

The newfound freedom to choose what she needed to train that day was foreign -- as was the attitude in the gym.

"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."

Even just a year ago, many thought Smith would be vying for a spot on the Olympic team this summer instead of wearing an Oklahoma leotard this season. After the 2016 Olympics and subsequent breaks from the sport by several of Smith's big-name teammates, including Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, Smith stepped up in their absence and won the all-around title at nationals, beating second-place finisher Jordan Chiles by more than three points and taking home gold on the floor exercise and balance beam.

She was a clear favorite for the all-around title at the 2017 worlds, and she qualified to the all-around final in second place before hurting her ankle during warm-ups just minutes before competition began. It was a devastating setback -- and the start of a series of setbacks. 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. Although she was later named to the training squad for the 2018 world team, she was designated the alternate and didn't compete at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.

Smith originally deferred her entrance to Oklahoma until after the 2020 Olympics, but over the summer, she called head coach K.J. Kindler to see if she could come earlier than planned. Kindler knew there was a small chance that could happen, so while she was disappointed for Smith in many ways, she was ecstatic to have Smith on the team and assured her that there was a place for her.

"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."

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. With limitations from the NCAA on how much time athletes are allowed to practice, as well as an emphasis on conditioning -- which includes swimming, time on the track and cycling workouts -- even Smith's sport has felt very different to her at times.

"It was very brave and bold of Ragan to make the decision to come when she did," Kindler said. "I think her body was telling her she was ready, and it was the smart move on her part. She's doing great here so far and is healthy now. She loves the sport, and you'll find her here on her off days just because she loves it and wants to be here and put in the work."

Nearly six months after she arrived on campus and with one semester of college behind her, Smith finally feels like she has gotten the hang of her new life. She recently decided, with the help of her academic advisor, to major in communications and is excited about the paths the degree can put her on. She still misses her family (especially on Sundays, when she tends to have the most free time) and can't quite figure out the separating her laundry thing ("I just throw it all in there, and the colors haven't bled together yet!"). But she feels like it has all gotten easier, and she's more than ready for the No. 1-ranked Sooners to start the season on Saturday at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim, California. They'll face seven other schools, including UCLA, Cal and Stanford. Smith's entire family will be there to cheer her on, and she is hoping to compete in all four events.

As is the case for many of her fellow elite-turned-collegiate gymnasts, Smith is enjoying being part of a team after years of competition and training mainly as an individual. She knows the expectations for the team, which has won four of the past six national titles, are sky-high, but she isn't focused on that right now.

"Obviously, it's in the back of all of our minds, but we're just waiting until the end of the regular season to put the pressure on," she said with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. "Honestly, my hopes for this year, and all of my four years here, are just to compete and have fun. That's pretty much it."