While most of the gymnastics world was focusing its attention on the Olympic trials last month in Baltimore, Columbia's Elise Ray was in Las Vegas, eyeing a junior national title.
Ray had a 36.5 all-around score in the final round of the U.S. Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs national meet conducted at the Sahara Convention Center. It earned her the honor of Level 8 Intermediate Optional junior national champion.
"It was surprising," said Ray, 10, who will enter the fifth grade next fall at Steven's Forest Elementary School. "I felt like I was ready for the national meet, and that all I had to do was go out and do my best."
Ray, and her five teammates from Docksiders, a private gymnastics club in Millersville, qualified for the national competition through their performances at a club association regional meet May 23 in Potomac. At the regionals, Ray netted the highest optional score, which included a 9.15 on the balance beam and floor exercise and a 9.0 on the uneven bars.
In the preliminaries of the national meet, which narrowed the field from 200 to 36 competitors, Ray placed second on bars (9.1), sixth on beam (9.2), sixth on floor (9.35) and second all-around (35.85).
"I just wanted to go out and do my best," she said. "I was just hoping to make it into the top 36, so I could keep on competing."
Another Howard County resident, Natalie Bracciale, 12, lost some crucial points that could have advanced her into the finals when she fell on beam and momentarily stopped her bar routine in the preliminaries. In spite of the miscues, Bracciale finished with a 34.35 all-around score, just shy of the 34.75 qualifying standard.
"I did pretty good," said Bracciale, who will be entering the seventh grade at Patapsco Middle School, "but I thought I could have a done a lot better."
Ray's exhibition, while not perfect, was a model of consistency. In the finals, she opened on the balance beam and was promptly awarded a 9.3.
"She's been so consistent on the balance beam, which is rare for someone her age," said her coach, John Barrows. "Her beam was just gorgeous. She had no mistakes in it. Beam is the event that separates the champions from the rest. The beam is where most people in gymnastics will make a mistake, and Elise just doesn't make mistakes."
On the floor exercise, her presence captured the attention of the audience, and her smile and bubbly personality helped sway the judges into awarding her a 9.2.
"She went out there and just had that fire in her eyes," said Barrows, who expects Ray will compete at Level 9 next year. "When she got ready to compete, she knew everyone was going to be watching her, and she loves that."
Ray's 8.8 on vault was typical of the days' scoring in that event, which Barrows attributed to a "tight vaulting board." However, it was her strong finish on bars, where she was performing a new routine, that earned her a 9.2 and the five-tenths of a point margin that she needed to overcome the eventual runner-up.
"In the finals, she was the last kid up in the first rotation of bars, and you could see everybody focusing on her, and she just ate that up," said Barrows. "She was like, 'Watch me.' She just loves to perform in front of people. There was a nice crowd there, and you could see her look around to see who was watching."
Ray said she went out and "focused on her goal."
"I just tried to block it [the crowd] out and pretend that they weren't there," she said. "I just went out and had a good time."
Mark Weber, who worked with Ray when she began in the sport, said he was thrilled to learn of her latest accomplishment but tried to minimize the feat to alleviate some of the pressure she will inevitably face as a national champ.
"She's a natural wonder," said Weber, who left the Docksiders last week to take over a private gymnastics club in Melbourne, Fla. "It's 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?' "