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Olympic fever for Ray


Ellen Ray hadn't packed a stitch yesterday afternoon, though she, her husband, Bill, her mother and son are leaving today to spend 14 days in Sydney, Australia.

The couple's passports weren't in the "important papers" folder yet, and Ray hadn't walked her trusty 11-year-old neighbor through the cat-feeding and plant-watering tasks he'll be doing while they are gone.

The house in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village was unusually quiet for the day before a big trip, and that's the way the Rays like it.

No hoopla. No hair-pulling. No chaos. No nerves.

Never mind that the Ray's 18-year-old daughter, Elise, will be competing in the 2000 Olympics next week as the leader of the American women's gymnastics team.

Until the Games begin Saturday, Ellen Ray said, she and her husband are still a two-career couple, with obligations at church, at home and in the community.

So instead of running around waving red-white-and-blue banners and trying to find just the right mother-of-a-medallist outfit to wear, Ray -- in her stocking feet -- was busy baking a chocolate chip cake for a neighbor recovering from surgery.

"I was organized enough to do my laundry yesterday," said Ray, who works as a nurse and midwife. "We've kinda got all those things done, so the last-minute stuff is just the packing. I guess I'll pack sometime tonight."

People who know the Rays wouldn't be surprised by her casual attitude. The Columbia family, including their superstar daughter, have a reputation of being grounded and calm -- so normal, they're exceptional.

So people around the Rays have taken it upon themselves to unabashedly display their excitement for them.

Former patients of Ellen Ray's have sent cards and letters. Friends stop by to wish the family well and trade "I remember Elise when" stories. Neighbors have had signs created to post in the neighborhood. The Rays' church, St. Mark's of Highland, made a banner to hang in Sydney. And Ellen Ray's office mates at Esposito, Mayer, Hogan and Associates have gone Elise-wild.

At receptionist Laura Berry's behest, they ordered "Go Elise!" T-shirts and wore red, white and blue while they waited for them to come in. All their computer screen savers alternate between "Good Luck Elise -- Sydney 2000" or pictures of the Wilde Lake High School graduate in various gymnastic poses. They wear Olympic buttons and pins, and stars in their hair. And posters adorn the waiting room area, with Elise's rosy-cheeked face grinning out, legs in a perfect V, or one arm flung dramatically in the air.

"It's like men and football," said health assistant Molly Wilson, in a white T-shirt, blue pants and a red stethoscope around her neck. "Men have their favorite teams and favorite players. We're doing the same thing with Elise. She's our player. This is her home and we're rooting for our home team."

Many of Ellen Ray's co-workers have known Elise since she was a tiny tumbler, and have crossed their fingers since then for this day, as they watched mother and daughter rise at the crack of dawn, travel to the gym, pray silently at meets and remain a cute, community-oriented, close-knit family.

Even if she comes home without a medal, the women in her mom's office already are looking forward to an autograph-signing session.

"We're just excited for them and the experiences Elise has had so far," Berry said. "This is going to be neat."

Ellen Ray said she doesn't think she'll be any more nervous watching her daughter this time around, despite the thrill of the Olympic prestige.

In fact, the family plans to spend a lot of time watching other Olympic events and will leave the plush hotel after one week to live with a host family just outside of Sydney, "to get an idea of what Australia is really like."

Elise's grandmother, Mary MacDonald, who flew from Miami to attend the Games, is just as excited to possibly get a glimpse of tennis great Venus Williams at the Olympics as she is to see her granddaughter.

Elise's older brother Taylor, a junior at James Madison University, is putting off a tonsillectomy to go with his family to the other side of the world, but he'll have to pick up his studies and cram hard to catch up when he returns.

And father Bill was unavailable to talk about his thoughts on the trip because he was working yesterday -- business as usual.

But Ellen Ray did manage this time to slip a little something special into the pre-meet routine, because it is the Olympics, after all.

An angel she gives to Elise before each and every meet this time hangs from a delicate lattice of five interlocking circles, made specially for her daughter by an Ellicott City silversmith.

"I always give her an angel, a little guardian angel, before every competition," Ellen Ray said.

Not to ensure a great win, a stuck landing or a medal of any hue.

"I just want my daughter to come home safe."

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