Her knee no flop, Ray ready to flip

Gymnastics: Post-operative patience wasn't easy, but it's paid off for Columbia's Elise Ray, who will open her bid for an Olympic spot in St. Louis tonight.

Olympic Spotlight

July 27, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

So that she could soar in Sydney, Elise Ray spent a couple of days of down time at her home in Columbia.

The women take center stage tonight at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis, the first of two competitions that will be weighed in the selection of the American Olympic team.

As the highest U.S. finisher in the all-around at last year's world championships, Ray walks in with strong status and none of the weakness that caused one of her knees to wobble in early June.

"Training has gone really well," she said during a telephone interview Tuesday night before a walk-through at the Kiel Center. "The knee hasn't given me any trouble at all. It feels great."

That wasn't the case a few weeks after Ray graduated from Wilde Lake High School. She underwent arthroscopic surgery June 14 to remove a small bone chip that was a product of a previous injury.

It was nearly three weeks before she was able to resume a full training schedule at coach Kelli Hill's gym in Gaithersburg, but her energy was put to use during her own brand of "rest and recovery."

"The surgery was minor, but I was still couch-bound for a couple of days," Ray said in an interview earlier this month. "That was tough. I wanted to get up and move around. I would try some crunches, move to the floor and do different things. I worked around it. I did everything I could that wouldn't slow the healing process.

"When I first got back in the gym, the emphasis was on upper-body stuff, things that wouldn't put any strain on my knee. You can be pretty creative in the gym, and anything that wouldn't pound it [the knee], we tried. After 2 1/2 to three weeks, I was back vaulting, tumbling, doing everything."

The injury caused Ray to miss the June edition of the monthly training camps that U.S. women's team coordinator Bela Karolyi has conducted at his compound outside Houston.

Karolyi is the most powerful American figure in the sport; he'll oversee the selection of the six-woman Olympic team, which will be announced after the U.S. trials -- the second weighted competition -- are completed in Boston Aug. 20.

Karolyi has been accused of being overbearing and pushing his pupils too hard, and he's never met a minicam he wouldn't mug for. Ray's coach, Hill, is the anti-Bela. She turned down a request from NBC to profile Ray before the nationals, and took a slow and easy approach to her rehabilitation.

"Kelli is so wonderful about injuries," Ray said. "She's patient. She listens to doctor's orders. She listens to us. We know our tolerance for pain. She knew that even though my surgery went well, if we didn't take our time coming back, there would be consequences.

"There were days last month when she told me to back down, times I said I was ready to try something and she would say, `No, a couple more days.' There were other times I was nervous about trying something, and I tried to be open with her about how I was feeling."

Tonight will be Ray's first competition since April, when she won the all-around at the Pacific Alliance Championships. The top 12 scorers from the nationals will advance to the U.S. trials.

The women will be rated, with 40 percent of their score coming from the nationals and 60 percent from the trials. Karolyi heads a four-person panel that will consult those ratings, but not be bound by them, when they select the Olympic roster.

Even Karolyi himself has described the selection process as "messy."

An intriguing mix of contenders has converged on St. Louis. There are young women in search of their first Olympic berths, like Ray, Kristen Maloney and Vanessa Atler.

There are gold medalists such as Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes, a University of Maryland student and training partner of Ray. Both are 23-year-old veterans who came out of retirement and had to file petitions in order to compete here.

The all-around preliminaries and individual event finals will be held tonight, and Ray is a force on the uneven bars, where a routine bears her name.

The all-around finals will be conducted Saturday.

Choosing teams

A glance at the Olympic selection process for men and women.

Men When chosen: Moments after the Olympic trials conclude, Aug. 20.

Who: Six athletes from among those competing at Olympic trials in August. The top four will be chosen based on combined scores from U.S. Gymnastics Championships (40 percent) and Olympic trials (60 percent). The other two spots will be awarded by a selection committee.

The committee: Nine-man men's program committee will select. Members include former Olympians Tim Daggett and Chris Waller and U.S. head coach Peter Kormann.

Nationals: The top 14 at this week's U.S. Gymnastics Championships advance to trials. Those not competing at nationals, like Chris Young (Achilles' tendon), can petition for a spot directly into trials. The decision on petitions will be made in upcoming weeks.

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