An alternate life: Team replacements fill key role at Worlds
posted on 11/02/2018

© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

They are the unsung heroes of the World Gymnastics Championships, and while they’re not performing on the competition the floor, their dedication and intensity are integral to the success of their teams.

There’s little glamour to being an alternate. Each team’s traveling backup accepts an all-guts, no-glory assignment: train as hard as everyone else and be ready to spring into action just in case something happens to one of the designated team members.

That’s the reality Ragan Smith and Allan Bower have lived at the World Championships in Doha. During the competition, they’ve been suited up and on the floor with the U.S. Team, helping chalk bars and doing everything humanly possible to support their teammates.

In the training gym, meanwhile, they’ve been sweating as much as everyone else in the pursuit of perfection in each of their routines.

“It’s just a different way of seeing it,” said Smith, who rebounded from injuries and a 10th-place finish at August’s U.S. Championships to make the six-person World Team. Being a spectator at Worlds has been an eye-opening experience for the 18-year-old, who looked on with pride -- and more than a few butterflies -- as the U.S. romped to its fourth consecutive World team gold Monday night.

“I’m actually more nervous to watch them than to compete,” she said. “It makes me feel so proud of them. They’ve done exactly what they do in practice, and it couldn’t be more amazing.”

Though understandably disappointed that she wasn’t able to show the world what she’s capable of this year, Smith’s dramatic upswing impressed the national team staff.

“If we gave a most improved award to the girls between August and now, it would definitely go to Ragan,” women’s High-performance Coordinator Tom Forster said. “She’s made tremendous strides. Clearly she has tremendous focus and she’s very goal-driven and her body has responded incredibly well. She’s dealt with injuries before and come back. She’s very tough mentally.”

Bower has used his presence in the training gym to propel his U.S. teammates forward. If he improved in Qatar, the rest of the team would work even harder, he figured.

“I always felt like the guys needed that extra push - like ‘If I’m not ready, then Allan’s going to be ready,’” said Bower, a senior at the University of Oklahoma who finished third all-around at the U.S. Championships. “I was glad that I got to experience it -- but I never want that feeling again of being in the alternate position.”

As the U.S. men aimed for the podium in the team final, Bower did his best to create an NCAA-style atmosphere -- lots of yelling, mainly -- that he knew his teammates, all current or former collegiate gymnasts, would appreciate.

“It’s such a tough position, but you’re only as good as your alternates,” said men’s High-performance Director Brett McClure. “It’s really important to see them giving at 110 percent, and it’s going to pay off for them.”