BOSTON - It has been little more than two weeks since Columbia gymnast Elise Ray vaulted to the U.S. national all-around championship, hardly enough time to savor her greatest athletic achievement ... and less than half the battle anyway.
Ray carries the top score into the women's preliminaries of the U.S. Olympic gymnastic trials tonight at Boston's FleetCenter, but the nationals counted for only 40 percent of the two-competition Olympic rankings and new selection rules provide no guarantee that the top six women after Sunday's final will earn the six slots on the U.S. team.
What does this all mean?
It means that Ray enters tonight's competition with the best statistical chance to represent the United States at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia next month, but she can't afford to bask too much in the glory of her victory in St. Louis.
"I'm looking at it as a new competition," Ray said. "I've tried to look at it that way in the gym. I know the scores are combined, but I feel like it's a different meet. I'm preparing the same way I did for the nationals."
That may be her greatest challenge. Ray proved her mettle with a dramatic final vault in the nationals, overtaking two-time champion Kristen Maloney to win the overall competition. Now she must prove she can defend her new-found status as the nation's top women's gymnast.
"It's always easier to climb than to stay on top," said her coach, Kelli Hill.
There still is plenty of mountain left, but Ray just has to hold her place among the top six U.S. women to earn a chance to compete against the best gymnasts in the world in Sydney. The new selection rules - which give team coordinator Bela Korolyi and the rest of his four-member selection panel the power to disregard the rankings if they feel it's in the best interests of the team - could create some additional suspense on Sunday night, but it's all but inconceivable that Korolyi would leave the U.S. champion off the team.
"She has positioned herself as the leading all-around gymnast in the country," Karolyi said.
Motivation apparently is not a problem.
"I feel like she is a little more nervous," Hill said. "I've been trying to calm her down."
Karolyi has tried hard to play down the selection controversy and cast the trials as a classic battle between a new generation of gymnasts - represented by top national finishers Ray, Maloney, Vanessa Atler and Jamie Dantzscher - and a group of veteran gymnasts that includes popular Shannon Miller, Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes.
"This is a joint effort of the older generation and the younger generation that's going to be the most disputed Olympic trials you've ever experienced," Karolyi said. "This is going to be the Olympic trials of my life. I've never seen so many strong athletes competing with each other to build a great Olympic team."
That generational battle already is minus one warrior, however. Veteran Dominique Moceanu had to withdraw from the trials after suffering a knee injury during Tuesday's workouts.
Moceanu, who has spent much of her time since the 1996 Games embroiled in a legal battle with her parents, had hoped to pull off a long-shot bid to get back to the games, but now faces surgery and a six-week recovery period.
"I'm really sad right now but, at this point in my life, I guess it just happened to be this way," Moceanu said during an afternoon news conference yesterday. "I gave it a shot and I can't look back and say that I didn't try."
NOTES: Last night's men's preliminaries featured another dominating performance by five-time national all-around champion Blaine Wilson, who built on the lead he established during the nationals in St. Louis.
Wilson scored a 9.95 on the rings and 9.90 on the vault on the way to a strong all-around score of 58.525. He also scored a 9.825 on the high bar to improve dramatically on his performance in that event at the nationals.
Paul Hamm of Wisconsin finished the prelims in second place and twin brother Morgan moved up into the sixth spot going into Saturday's final. But veteran John Roethlisberger stumbled through several events to drop out of the top six.
"John's a scrapper," said Wilson. "If there's a way to get back up in the top six, he'll find a way. I believe in John."
Roethlisberger, 30, finished 12th among the 17 competitors in the preliminaries, but ended the day in seventh place in the overall standings.
"That's unbelievable," he said. "I didn't think I'd be in the top 10. That's amazing."
Baltimore swimmers Michael Phelps and Tommy Hannan, who have made the U.S. Olympic team, will be doing a live Internet chat from noon to 1 p.m. today. Questions can be submitted in advance or live at www.sunspot.net/sports/chat/.