ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The score indicated she was in second place, but everyone really knew better.
Elise Ray of Columbia, Md., needed a 9.676 in the floor exercise last night to keep a slip on the balance beam from costing her the overall title in an Aussie Haircare Gymnastics Invitational she had otherwise dominated.
Ray, a senior at Wilde Lake High School and the defending national champion in the floor exercise, responded with flair, scoring a 9.75 to take the overall title from 15-year-old Australian Allana Slater at the Bayfront Center.
"I was mad and upset at the same time, but I tried keep that a positive aspect," Ray said after defeating Slater by .075 for the title. "The top overall score was in my head. It was definitely a motivation."
Ray, who had not competed since the World Championships in October, said she could tell early in the exercise that the target score was within reach.
"My first pass was one of the best I've had in a long time," she said. "After that I got really pumped.
"I was nervous starting a new year, but it was a good nervous."
Ray, regarded as the United States' best female gymnast after a team-best overall finish of eighth at the 1999 World Championships, says the Sydney Summer Olympics are on her mind. So does her coach, Kelli Hill, who saw last night as the next step toward the Games.
"She was pretty good considering the long layoff," Hill said. "I'm surprised she fell off beam, but she's not where she needs to be in any event, and that's good. It's a long time until September."
Last night's event was the second of three invitationals in the American Cup Series. Two American and six international males and females were invited to each event by USA Gymnastics. The top three international men and women and the top American male and female from the first two competitions qualified for the final event in the series, the American Cup on Feb. 26 in Orlando, Fla.
Excelling at the American Cup -- which has been won by former Olympic gold medalists Nadia Comaneci, Shannon Miller, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug -- will be taken as a sign of momentum heading into the Sydney Olympics on Sept. 16.
Injuries to two top American women meant Ray competed against unheralded teammate Tasha Schwikert for the American Cup spot and a $10,000 prize. Schwikert was fifth in the initial qualifier Jan. 14 and earned another invitation because of the injuries.