© Filippo Thomasi

By John Powers

Ragan Smith remembers coming into the Texas training camp as a wide-eyed junior and watching the sport’s royalty chalking up. “I was, oh, there’s Gabby. Whoa! Oh, there’s Simone,” she says. “I was freaking out. I was like, oh my gosh, that’s so cool.”

This year Smith and fellow 15-year-old Laurie Hernandez are alongside Douglas and Biles on the road to Rio. They’re the new faces on a U.S. women’s gymnastics team that is heavily favored to retain its Pacific Rim Championships, presented by Hershey’s, crown on Saturday in Everett, Wash. “It’s definitely a very big jump,” observes Hernandez. “As my coaches say, you’re hanging with the big dogs now. But I feel comfortable already.”

As usual, particularly in the Olympic year, the U.S. is sending a top-level squad to the Pac Rims to face the likes of Japan and Canada. Biles, the three-time world all-around titlist, and Ashton Locklear were members of the 2014 gold-medal team and Biles, Brenna Dowell and Olympic champion Aly Raisman competed for last year’s global victors.

Hernandez and Smith are among the most prominent representatives of the next bunch in the pipeline, which rarely is far behind the elite group on the main stage. “We feel like they have a realistic chance to possibly make the (Olympic) team or at least be among the replacements,” says national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

The USA Gymnastics development system, which customarily brings juniors into camp to train with seniors, is designed to refresh rosters seamlessly from Games to Games.

“That’s the greatest advantage, that the young generation is exposed to the same system as the old ones,” says Karolyi. “Everything feels normal. It’s nothing really new or nothing really scary or nothing so special. We probably have them in our system for at least six years. So it’s not that somehow it just happens that two young ones are popping up and trying to compete with Olympians.”

Smith, who lives in Lewisville, Texas, competes for Texas Dreams Gymnastics and is coached by former World champion Kim Zmeskal-Burdette, has worn a leotard since she was a toddler, attending Mom and Me classes with mother Kerry, who competed for Auburn. “It feels like it was just yesterday,” says Smith, who was added to the team after Maggie Nichols tweaked a knee in training camp.

Hernandez, who comes from Old Bridge, N.J. and competes for MG Elite, survived a daunting road to get here, coming back first from a fractured hand two years ago and then a torn patella tendon and a dislocated kneecap from a vaulting mishap that sidelined her for six months.

“What happened in 2014 was definitely a big deal,” says Hernandez, who has committed to the University of Florida and will enroll in the autumn of 2018. “It was very stressful coming back, and I just wanted to do everything the right way. Taking my time really helped me, and I feel that I skyrocketed from 2014 to 2016.”

When Smith and Hernandez placed second and third behind Douglas at last month’s City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy they essentially sewed up Pac Rim spots along with their bemedaled elders on what will be the final international competition for the Americans before the Olympic team is chosen this summer.

“It feels really great being here with Olympians and world champions,” says Smith. “I know we’re the youngest ones but I feel like we belong on this team. So I know we’re going to do great.”