A Balancing Act

As their gymnast daughter has somersaulted toward potential Olympic stardom, Ellen and Bill Ray of Columbia have trained hard to keep family life normal.

April 20, 2000|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

COLUMBIA -- The bookstores are full of volumes on how to maximize your child's potential. "Raise a brighter child," promises one book. "Awaken the genius in your child," urges another.

But if Ellen and Bill Ray were to write a book, it might be titled something like: "How to make your exceptional child normal."

You may not have heard much about the Rays' daughter, Elise -- not yet, anyway. She's a rising gymnastics star who may be the United States' best hope for a medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

No doubt the spotlight will shine on 18-year-old Elise plenty in the future. So let's shift it away for now. Instead, meet her parents, a Columbia couple who like to talk about raising a kid who just happens to be a champion.

Forget about the stage parents who hover over their kids, constantly critiquing their performances. Ellen Ray has seen them, and they make her shudder.

Things operate a bit differently in the Ray household. Until Elise got her driver's license, her parents took her to the gym -- but dropped her off at the door. Around their dinner table, talk of gymnastics is all but off-limits, unless Elise brings it up. And when Elise travels the globe, the Rays stay home and trust her coaches to supervise her.

"We've tried to keep our expectations reasonable, and not put our own pressures on our child," says Ellen, who works as a nurse and midwife. "We never tried to coach her. We've never had her come home and tell us about practice.

"And we never, ever talked about the Olympics until her coach sat us down two years ago and said Elise has the potential to make it."

Gymnastics is a sport that is kind only to young women, and the Rays are acutely aware that Elise will probably be too old to compete in the 2004 Olympics. It's one reason why they've worked so hard to provide a normal upbringing for her -- they don't want their daughter to feel washed up at 19.

A glimpse of Elise's bedroom walls hints that their strategy is working. Amid the medals and ribbons are typical teen-age treasures: posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, photographs of friends and, dangling from a hanger, the delicate pink dress she'll wear to her senior prom at Wilde Lake High School.

Missing from the bedroom, however, is Elise herself. She's in New Zealand just now, at another competition. This absence is particularly hard on her parents.

"It's the first time we won't have Easter together," laments her mom.

That's the downside of having a child currently ranked among the world's best in a highly competitive sport (Elise finished eighth at the 1999 world championships). Ever since that talk with Elise's coach two years ago, when the stakes were laid out on the table and Elise decided to devote herself to making the Olympic team, every member of the Ray family has had to give something up.

For her parents, the sacrifice has been lost sleep and family time. Either Ellen or Bill, who works as a psychotherapist, gets up at 5 a.m. to ferry their daughter to her Gaithersburg gym; Elise "isn't a morning person," her mom says. Elise had to resign herself to the fact that she'll never have a part in a school play -- something she has yearned to do. And her brother, Taylor, now a sophomore at James Madison University, says the thing he misses is the family's annual summertime trip to the beaches of Florida.

"She's always so busy," he says. "Because of the amount of time it takes, it limits things we can do as a family."

Aware that having such an accomplished sibling could be hard on Taylor, the Rays made a rule early on: Whenever Taylor had soccer or basketball games that conflicted with Elise's competitions, Ellen and Bill split up, with one attending each event.

They've also helped Elise stay involved with events outside of the gymnastics arena.

She may not have time for the school play, but with a bit of creative juggling, she has made it to school dances -- even though she's had to wolf down dinner in the car and change clothes in the school bathroom. She doesn't have time to watch TV with her brother, but she does occasionally drag him to the mall and instruct him on how to dress.

The Rays have also had some outside help in keeping Elise's talent in perspective. Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, part of the 1996 gold medal-winning U.S. team, took Elise under her wing a few years ago after they met while training at the same gym.

"She and Dominique became pretty close during the year Dominique was training for the Olympics," says Ellen. "Elise got to see what that took -- hard work, grueling practices, tearful practices. Plus, she got to see her be enormously successful."

Dawes always stressed to Elise that while aiming for the gold medal, it was important to enjoy the journey. After all, the Olympic dream can be cut short with one stumble.

So the Rays remind their daughter to think of the things her sport has enabled her to do: travel, meet famous people and, next January, take advantage of a full athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan.

Where, if all goes according to plan, Elise the gymnast will be transformed into someone else: Elise the veterinarian.

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