Up for a trip Down Under?

Gymnastics: Wilde Lake High's Elise Ray is working overtime to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic women's team that will compete in Australia in September.


May 12, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - Gymnast Elise Ray keeps a curious calendar.

April 20-25: Spend Easter in New Zealand. Win the all-around at an international competition.

May 5: Senior prom at the Inner Harbor.

Today: Travel to Texas for a training session at Bela Karolyi's camp.

Ray will graduate from WildeLake High next month, but she is not your typical "Junebug."

The 18-year-old is attempting to win a berth on the U.S. Olympic women's team that will compete in Australia in September, and the intensity will only increase between now and the Olympic trials, which is Aug.15-20 in Boston.

Ray trains at Kelli Hill's gym in Gaithersburg, but this session with Karolyi will be her fifth in as many months.

"It's hard having to pack up and leave home every month, especially with school wrapping up," Ray said before an afternoon practice two days ago. "We get back from Houston next Wednesday, and finals start Friday. It can be a bit of a hassle, but it's good for everyone to pull together as a team."

It's probably also good that Ray remains in Karolyi's eye. On the same day she spoke, the man who looms over women's gymnastics in the United States gained unprecedented say in the makeup of the team that will go to Sydney.

USA Gymnastics announced Wednesday that its six women's berths - one fewer than in 1996 - will be up to a four-person panel headed by Karolyi, the national team coordinator. The United States' best will first compete at the national championships in St. Louis in July. The day the Olympic trials conclude, the team will be announced.

Hill, Ray's coach, doesn't like a process in which there are no guarantees, even for the top three trials finishers. Karolyi says changes made by the Olympics necessitate favoring women who excel in one or two events in lieu of an average all-arounder.

By any standard, Ray has caught Karolyi's eye.

Ray was sixth in the all-around at last year's nationals, but she was the top American woman at the world championships in October. In January, she won the middle leg of the three-meet American Cup series.

A foot injury held her out of the American Cup final in February, but she had a steady performance at the Senior Pacific Alliance Championships in New Zealand last month. It was across the Tasman Sea from Sydney, on the same equipment that will be used in the Olympics.

"Even though I placed first, it wasn't the best meet of my life," Ray said. "There are a lot of little things I still need to work on."

Dominique Dawes is among several members of the "Magnificent Seven," the American women who won the team gold medal in 1996, on the comeback trail. The University of Maryland student is training again at Hill's gym. She isn't at camp Karolyi this weekend, but Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu are.

This invitation includes a trip tomorrow to the Olympic Media Summit, and Ray was surprised to learn that Brandi Chastain, Grant Hill and Michael Johnson are among the hundreds of athletes who will meet the press.

She, too, could soon be a household name.

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