Columbia gymnast on a roll Goodwill silver adds to emergence of Ray, 16

July 29, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Elise Ray became a grown-up this year in her sport, gymnastics. She turned 16, making her a "senior." That replaced the anonymity of "junior" tournaments -- even though they took her to Japan, Guatemala and Canada -- with high-profile events such as last week's Goodwill Games.

Now, the pressures of training and competition are increasing, and the margins for error are shrinking. Like the bruises on her wrists and lower legs, Ray views that as merely part of the price to reach her goal.

The 4-foot-11, 90-pound Columbia gymnast, who starts her junior year at Wilde Lake High on Aug. 24, is talking about the 2000 Olympics in Australia matter-of-factly, not cockily.

"We're going for it," she said, the "we" acknowledging her parents, William and Ellen Ray, and her older brother, Brad, as well as her coach. "I have to keep working and keep believing in myself. Really, I have to take one day at a time, one competition at a time."

In that vein, first things first.

As a "senior" only since February, Ray has represented the United States in two big-deal international meets, both in the past month.

She brought home two silver medals in her best event, the uneven bars, and a gold medal as member of the five-gymnast U.S. team that won the Pacific Alliance Championships in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a nine-nation competition that included gymnastic powers Japan and China.

The most recent silver, in the Goodwill Games in New York last Wednesday, squeezed her name out of USA Gymnastics' news releases and into the day's sports news in newspapers and on television around the world.

For Ray may be just another 11th-grader academically, but flipping and twisting nimbly around and between the uneven bars that morning, she arrived, gymnastically speaking. She beat out two 1996 Olympic gold medalists; no, it doesn't much matter that their golds came in events other than the challenging, visually appealing bars.

One was Romania's Simona Amanar. The other was U.S. Olympian Dominique Dawes, a role model-turned-friend and training partner at Hill's Gymnastics Training Center in Gaithersburg; she was fifth.

Ray's 9.7 trailed only the 9.825 registered by the reigning Olympic gold medalist on the uneven bars, Russian Svetlana Khorkina.

"She's really tall compared to everybody else," Ray said. "I love her style on bars. It's unique. She's so good, a couple moves are named after her. She's definitely competition."

So is Ray. Her two silvers in uneven bars were neither surprising nor flukes, said her coach of the past three years, Kelli Hill, a former University of Maryland gymnast who has coached the U.S. national team in four World Championships, most recently 1996.

"She was a very high-ranked junior for the past two years," said Hill, who calls Ray's style "elegant" as well as athletic and says her protege is building confidence in herself. "In February, she ranked third on bars in qualifying to compete as a senior. Keep your eyes open. You will be seeing more of her."

In fact, Ray topped the nation in 1997's U.S junior championships in the uneven bars, tied for first on the balance beam and was third in the floor exercise. Overall, she finished fourth, dragged down by 11th place in the vault, the event Ray said she needs to improve in most.

"I don't consider myself a power gymnast," she said, "and the vault is a pure power event, meaning strength, speed and aggressiveness." She calls the uneven bars her favorite, "one of the graceful events."

Ray's success is rooted in talent that surfaced at the age of 7 in a Howard County recreation tumbling program she doesn't remember. Columbia's Gymnastics Plus and Millersville's Docksiders club heightened her skills.

These days, that talent is being tempered by hours of hard work with other elite-level gymnasts -- two training sessions a day most days of the year.

During school, that means arriving at Hill's gym in Gaithersburg at 6 a.m. for a session that ends at 7: 30. After school in Columbia, it's Gaithersburg again, by 3 p.m., for five more hours of workouts.

Hill singled out Ray's practice ethic as something that distinguishes her and helps explain her excellence: "She always goes above and beyond -- always. If the assignment's one thing, she adds to it. She pushes herself."

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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