For gymnast, parallel lives

Gymnastics: Elise Ray is a Columbia high school senior, but also one with Olympic dreams as one of the nation's best at her sport.

January 28, 2000|By Stan Rappaport | Stan Rappaport,SUN STAFF

Elise Ray doesn't need to get a life.

She already has two.

During the school day, Ray is a senior at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.

For much of the rest of her time, Ray is a gymnast -- a very good gymnast.

Ray was eighth in the all-around at the 1999 world championships, the best finish by a U.S. woman since Dominique Moceanu's fifth-place standing in 1995. She is perhaps the best female gymnast in the country and considered a top medal hope in the Summer Olympics, which begin Sept. 15 in Sydney, Australia.

You need to know that about Ray, because you won't get it from her.

"If someone doesn't bring up the subject of gymnastics, she'll never talk about it," said Ray's brother, Taylor, a James Madison University sophomore. "She's modest."

Ray, who will compete tomorrow in the Aussie Haircare Gymnastics Invitational in St. Petersburg, Fla., a qualifying meet for the Feb. 26 American Cup, has managed to keep her life as normal as possible.

"Balance is very important to Elise. It's always been that way," said Linda Johnson, her longtime choreographer. "She has a keen awareness of how to maintain that balance."

Ray's gymnastics schedule is demanding. She's up at 5 a.m. every school morning except Thursday to make a 6-to-7: 30 a.m. practice. Her mother, Ellen, or father, Bill, drives her the 40 minutes to Kelli Hill's Training Center in Gaithersburg, then drops Ray back at Wilde Lake in time for class.

Ray, who will turn 18 on Feb. 6, drives herself to afternoon practices from 3 to 8 Monday through Thursday. And don't forget Saturday's practices from 7 a.m. to noon.

There also are the trips. For years, she has traveled the country (too many cities to name) and the world (China, Japan, Canada, Guatemala, to name a few).

Through it all, Ray has managed to keep perspective.

"She's accomplished a lot and doesn't act differently than anyone else," said Lucy Howey, a friend and Wilde Lake classmate. "She comes to school and wants to have a school life and school friends. She doesn't want to be known just as a gymnast."

Said Ray: "I definitely think about my gymnastics and my school being two completely different things, and I think that's one of the things that really helps me. If I have a bad day at the gym, I know I can come [to Wilde Lake], and it will be completely different. I'm just a regular student. I like that. I want that."

That's important, said Hill, Ray's coach for five years.

"I don't want them to look back and say they gave up their youth and teen-age years for gymnastics," said Hill, who coached 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes. "You can do both."

Ray's parents have driven her, but only by car.

"They've never pressured me. It's just the opposite," said Ray, who has accepted a scholarship to the University of Michigan and plans to enroll next January. "Not only do they get up at 5 a.m. to drive me to practice, they listen to me when I need to complain, and comfort me when I need to cry. And they make me laugh. They're so good about it."

Ellen Ray is a nurse and midwife for an obstetrics group in Columbia. Bill Ray is a psychotherapist for Meninger Care.

"We're pretty laid-back," said Ellen Ray. "We're incredibly proud of her, but we respect her need to have her own independence and her own life. We're here to support her -- that's our role -- and sometimes, that means not talking about gymnastics.

"She knows we're here for her, but we really try to keep a back seat. We're not in charge of this; she is. This is her dream -- her dream, her goal. That's, to us, what's most important."

There was no goal or dream when Ray began with tumbling. She was 5.

"Elise was in a Howard County Parks and Recreation tumbling class," said her mother. "I remember the teacher telling me that Elise had a lot of talent and that I should put her in gymnastics."

A year later, Ray was in her first class at Gymnastics Plus in Columbia. She later moved to Docksiders Gymnastics in Millersville and then joined Hill, who could provide her the training to compete at the international and Olympic levels.

Training at Hill's gym also gave Ray the chance to work with Dawes, who earned an Olympic bronze medal in floor exercise and a team gold at the Atlanta Games.

"I learned a lot from working out with that group," Ray said. "Dominique and I just clicked. She's a wonderful person and an incredible gymnast, and working out with her and seeing her go to the Olympics was an inspiration."

`Fluid, graceful, elegant'

Ray, who is 5 feet tall and weighs 102 pounds, is strong, flexible and athletic. She is not, however, a powerhouse gymnast.

"Most people who don't know anything about the sport are so impressed with how easy and how beautiful she makes gymnastics look," Hill said. "It's a very fluid, graceful, elegant quality that she has."

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