At 8 years old, gymnast Azaraya Ra-Akbar has a long way to go before she can qualify for the Olympic Games. But since joining Hills Gymnastics a year and a half ago, her skill level in the sport has grown so exponentially that suddenly no dream seems too farfetched.
After a slow start in the realm of athletics, she has quickly become one of the best Level 7 gymnasts in the state.
"A lot of times you hear kids doing crazy things at a younger age and it wasn't like that for her. She kind of had two left feet, and then right around five (years old) it clicked for her," said Azaraya's father, Juba Ra-Akbar, during a practice at Hills Gymnastics in Gaithersburg, Maryland. "That's when we were like, she probably has a gift in the sport. She can probably do something with it and then it was here when she kind of got pushed and it became a little more serious."
For Juba Ra-Akbar, it was easy for him to spot his daughter's talent, as he was a former gymnast himself. He opened up his own gym, Crown Athletics, located in Columbia about three years ago. He coaches cheerleading out of the facility.
With the access to her father's gym and to his knowledge, the Ellicott City native became an expert tumbler before she turned six years old.
"Mostly (I) just (showed her the) introduction to the sport, like cartwheels, round-offs and back hand springs. All of her major tumbling stuff is what I worked on and like to work with her on now. I kind of guide her when I see it," Juba said. "She has a very big personality. It's a very hyper personality. Gymnastics allows her to focus that energy to be productive and the confidence, personality … those things kind of separate the group."
For coach Amy Martelli, it was that bubbly personality she saw in Azaraya right off the bat. But she also recognized how much potential she had as well.
"My first meeting her, she was extremely precocious. She cracked me up. She walked in the door the first time … she saw the lockers, thought the lockers looked cool and she wanted to know which one was going to be hers and when she can put her name on it and start decorating it," Martelli recalled. "So I knew we would have our hands full, because that was her first concern. …She is willing to put herself out there and that makes a big difference. A big part of their score is presentation and how much they're willing to preform and to dance. She usually does very well with that portion of the score. Not so much with her knees and feet sometimes, but she is definitely willing.
"She's a performer; she seems to enjoy the competition."
Prior to joining Hills Gymnastics about a year and a half ago, Azaraya practiced more recreationally at a smaller gym in Prince George's County. When she made the transition over to Hills, she came in as a Level 3 gymnast.
"(She has improved) a tremendous amount," Martelli said. "That's not even the same kid and that's what we hear from judges and other coaches from other meets; people that have watched her grow up a little bit. It was play time to her before and now she is learning how to train and that's the biggest change, watching her develop into an athlete."
Martelli has spent the most time working with Azaraya, but the young gymnast is in constant communication with owner and head coach Kelli Hill. In Hill's 30 years of coaching, she has trained numerous Olympians, including Dominique Dawes ('92, '96 and '00 Olympic teams), Elise Ray ('00), Courtney Kupets ('04) and Corrie Lothrop ('08 alternate).
"Kelli runs a tight ship, but that's what I like about her," Juba said. "She's not one of those people that squashes personalities, but there's a certain maturity level and responsibility that these kids have that the average child does not have to deal with. I've definitely seen my daughter change since we've come here. She's become a stronger person."
This past year she won the Hills competition, won her division in last month's Christmas on the Chesapeake competition — coming in 12th overall out of 250 kids — and placed fourth in the 2016 National Judges Invitational in Kentucky, despite falling on the un-even bars.
She showed toughness in that meet, shaking off the fall and posting some of her best scores of her career.
"I was getting video after every event. … I saw it was her first event. She came out a little early, but then she did a beautiful job on beam, floor and vault. Probably the best job she could've done," said Hill. "That says a lot about an athlete right there. Falls happen, but the way she comes back and handles that… she got mad and got tough and did what she had to do. She handled herself like a champ."
Azaraya admitted the fall shook her at first, but she felt better after learning her high score after the fact.
"I couldn't really see anything because my face was filled with tears. I didn't really feel good after the fall, but once I went to beam I felt better. I scored high," she said. "(The coaches said,) 'good job, you scored a 9.7.' I felt good because the highest score I got on beam was a 9.3."
Maybe the biggest achievement this year was getting invited to the Bella Karoyli Ranch in Texas — the official training center of the USA National Team.
Most girls have to test-in to get accepted into the camp, but Martelli sent in a video to Valeri Liukin — the father of 2008 Olympic Gold medalist Nastia Liukin — who heads the junior qualifying program. Valeri was impressed enough from the tape that Azaraya was invited immediately.
"Valeri is looking for talent right now in that age division, because you're always talking a ways down the road. There is a whole developmental program right now for the 2020 (Olympic Games). And the next group coming up, which will be starting next season, will be the 2024's and she's on the list," Hill said. "The pieces are being put into play for her to be successful at that time, but ultimately it will come down to Azaraya. It's how her body handles the pain and stress and handles that mentally. All of those things we can't put a handle on it yet. We won't know until she grows and matures, but the opportunities to be successful will be there."
The hopes of the Olympics have started resonating in the young gymnast. Although she was only 4 when the USA women's gymnastics team took gold in London in 2012, Azaraya remembers watching her favorite gymnast Gabby Douglas' floor routine. Douglas also trained at Karoyli's while she was still an Olympic hopeful.
"I watched her movie 10 times. I would scream (if I ever got to meet her). I would just stare," Azaraya said of Douglas. "I really like her because of her dancing moves."
In the meantime, Azaraya is getting set to compete at states in early March. She hopes to score a perfect 40 this time around and, when asked how she is looking to do that, she said, "To hit all 10's."