For years, Maryland Gymnastics of Millersville has billed itself as the "Home of the Docksiders."
Following the Docksiders return from the U.S. Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs in Las Vegas last month, the private facility in Millersville could add "Home of Junior National Champion Elise Ray" to its letterhead.
Ray, a 10-year-old Columbia resident, surfaced from a field of 200 tumblers at the Level 8 Intermediate Optionals at the Sahara Convention Center to become the Level 8 Intermediate Optional junior national champion with a 36.5 all-around score.
"I just wanted to go out and do my best, and I was just hoping to make it into the top 36, so I could keep on competing," said Ray. "I was surprised when I won. I felt like I was ready for the national meet and that all I had to do was go out and do my best."
Docksiders coach John Barrows said he was happy with the way all six of his gymnasts carried themselves throughout the meet, but couldn't help but gloat over Ray's performance.
"She went out there and just had that fire in her eyes," said Barrows, whose Level 8 team won the U.S. Gymnastics Federation's Maryland state championship in April in Williamsport, Washington County. "When she got ready to compete she knew everyone was going to be watching her, and she loves that."
In the preliminaries of the national meet, which narrowed the field to 36 competitors, Ray placed second on the uneven parallel bars (9.1), sixth on balance beam (9.2), sixth in floor exercises (9.35) and second all-around (35.85).
She was joined in the finals by teammate Ashley Powell, who made the cut with a 35.65 all-around score.
"Elise is a natural wonder," said coach Mark Weber, who left the Docksiders last week after eight years to take a job at Artistic Gymnastics, a private gymnastics club in Melbourne, Fla. "It's almost scary to think that Maryland might have another kid after [Bethesda's] Dominique Dawes in the '96 Olympic Games, but those two might have that kind of potential.
"Its pretty impressive for anybody that young to do what she did. To have a national champion at 10 years old, it's almost a matter of trying to downplay it because, 'Where do you go from here?' "
If all goes as planned, Ray and some of her Level 8 teammates will move up to Level 9 by fall. Among the other Level 9 hopefuls are Powell, Krista Gole, Natalie Bracciale, Becky Singleton and Marianne Vane -- all of whom qualified for the USAIGC nationals through their performances at a regional meet last May in Potomac.
Powell, a 10-year-old Pasadena resident, was the Docksiders' second-highest finisher. Her 34.7 all-around score in the finals earned her a spot among the meet's top 15. While making it to the finals was a thrill for Powell, her 9.1 on the balance beam was even more satisfying.
"I really wanted to get a nine on beam," she said. "I had never gotten one, and I succeeded with that, so I was happy."
And so was her coach.
"Ashley has been consistent all year, but this was an impressive meet for her," said Barrows. "She had a little break on beam and on bars, but it was a good experience for her."
Vane's experience at the national meet was short-lived, as she fell on the bars and was taken to a nearby hospital for over
"I was upset," said Vane, who tallied a 7.55 before withdrawing from the meet. "Before the meet I had a 102 fever, and when I fell, the doctor said my grip strength wasn't too good, so I shouldn't have been competing anyway."
For most gymnasts, a three-fall meet would spell disaster, but Gole nearly made the cut, despite her mistakes. Gole, the USGF state champion on bars and floor, recorded a 34.55 all-around score, just shy of the 34.75 qualifying standard.
"When we went out," said Barrows, "I thought, if any kid would make it to finals, it would be Krista."
Another surprise for Barrows, albeit a pleasant one, was Bracciale, who nearly broke into the finals, despite a fall on beam and a temporary stop on bars.
"Natalie had a great meet," said Barrows. "She's finally coming back, and she finished the meet. Her response to us was, 'I feel good.' "
Singleton, who will enter seventh grade at Severna Park Middle School along with Vane, admitted she was a "little nervous" in her first trip to nationals and believes that may have had something to do with her two falls on the balance beam.
"It was kind of scary because all the judges were looking at you and you had a big crowd staring down," said Singleton, who had to settle for a 7.75 on the beam. "I just kept thinking, 'I can't make a mistake.' "
Coach Linda Johnson, who made the trip with the youngsters and choreographed their routines, was happy with the team's showing in competition. But she was more intrigued by the maturity displayed by her gymnasts.
"You should have seen the way the girls carried themselves," said Johnson. "Typically, you think that a 10-year-old would get tired or intimidated during a two-day meet, but they were the leaders in their groups. They were supporting kids that they didn't even know. I was proud of them."