BOSTON - Columbia's Elise Ray looked very much like the national champion that she became two weeks ago, delivering a strong, consistent performance in the preliminaries of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team trials last night at the FleetCenter.
Ray had to overcome some pre-meet jitters, but she scored well in all four events to solidify her place at the top of the overall rankings.
"I felt like I was having a little trouble during practice," said Ray. "I was having a problem with nerves, but I thought I got my head together. I concentrated and thought a lot about it before the meet, trying to put the nerves aside."
She obviously succeeded, equaling or improving on her scores from the U.S. Nationals in three of the four events. The only score that wasn't at least as high as her championship performance in St. Louis was a 9.812 in the uneven bars - and it equaled the best individual score in any event for the first night of the women's trials.
"I think she's getting more confident in competition," said Kelli Hill, who coaches both Ray and 1996 Olympian Dominique Dawes. "I think she's calmed down and gotten into the zone she needs to be in to compete."
The next step is Sunday's final, but Ray has built such a solid lead in the combined rankings that her place on the six-woman Olympic team is all but assured.
"I really feel good about today," she said. "I try to go for perfection out there, so there are some things to fix, but I'm looking forward to Sunday."
The final makeup of the women's team will be determined by a four-person selection committee controlled by national team coordinator Bela Karolyi.
But selections will be based heavily on the combined scores from the U.S. Nationals two weeks ago and the women's trials that end tomorrow night.
The Nationals count for 40 percent of the final rankings, but that represented a significant head start for Ray, who vaulted to a come-from-behind victory to win the national all-around championship in St. Louis.
Ray started her evening on the uneven bars and quickly showed why it is her favorite event. She performed a strong routine and capped it with a perfect dismount to earn a 9.812, equaling the best score of the night in any event.
"Starting your first event strong really gets your momentum going into the rest of the competition," she said. "You just want to keep going with it."
Her 9.499 in the vault would rank only third best in the prelims, but it was better than either of her scores in that event at the trials. She delivered the best score of the night on the beam (9.700) and finished with a 9.800 in the floor exercise.
Two-time national champion Kristen Maloney faltered on the bars but held her runner-up position with solid scores in the other three events.
"There were some ups and downs," Maloney said, "but I was pretty happy. I was just a little frustrated with the bars. ... I was trying to get some of my nerves out. I want to go into Sunday more relaxed."
Karolyi had predicted a fierce battle of the new generation and the old, and the Olympic veterans tried hard to make it more than pre-trials hype.
Shannon Miller followed Ray to the bars and turned in a solid performance that earned her a 9.712 and a tie for second place with fellow 1996 Olympian Amy Chow.
But it was Chow, sixth at the U.S. Nationals at St. Louis, who made a big move in the overall rankings. Miller fell on her first vault and scored just 8.893.
Chow had climbed from sixth to fourth in the rankings by the end of the first rotation, then followed her solid performance on the bars with two strong vaults (9.593) and a 9.65 on the balance beam to climb to third. She didn't sparkle in the floor exercise (9.337) but finished second for the night and held the third slot overall.
Californian Jamie Dantzscher, 18, needed a strong floor exercise to finish in the fourth position overall. Cincinnati's Morgan White will enter the finals in fifth, and Vanessa Alter slipped to sixth.
Dawes delivered solid performances on the bars and beam to finish sixth on the night and move into seventh place overall. But she probably will need a more dramatic move in the rankings to have a realistic chance of winning a place on the Olympic team.
"She hit four events, and she can do better in all four of them," Hill said. "It's only her third meet in four years. I can't say I'm disappointed at all."
NOTES: It was a difficult night for Alter, who came into the competition ranked fourth overall. She lost ground on the bars and floor exercise, then took a bad fall on her dismount from the beam to drop into the sixth position. ... Kendall Beck, a four-year national team member, pulled out of the trials after just one event last night because of chronic inflammation of the left hip.