Medals in balance, life in equilibrium

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The sports world is full of stories about teen athletes deprived of their youth by overzealous coaches and overbearing parents ... of the joy of sport being replaced by the intense pressure to succeed. Maybe that's why U.S. gymnastics champion Elise Ray is such an appealing Olympic story.

It takes tremendous commitment to become one of the best athletes in the world, but Ray - the 18-year-old Columbia resident who swept through the nationals and the Olympic trials to establish herself as the nation's top women's gymnast - has proved that you don't have to sacrifice your life to pursue your dream.

She went to public school. She has lived at home throughout her years of gymnastics training. She doesn't have an agent or a marketing team. She is - and this is high praise in the world of big-time little-girl sports - a normal kid with a relatively normal life.

Not that life can ever be entirely normal when you train several hours every day and compete all over the world, but Ray has been able to balance her gymnastics career with a healthy home environment.

"I consider myself really lucky that I've been able to live at home, have an excellent club just 40 miles from home and go to public school," Ray said recently.

The results speak for themselves.

Ray emerged as one of the world's best all-around gymnasts with an eighth-place finish at the world championships in China last year. She made a dramatic comeback to win her first national championship in July and then held her place at the top of the individual rankings at the Olympic trials in August.

In short order, she went from being a fairly anonymous student at Wilde Lake High to being one of America's top female athletes.

The Olympics could make her a star, but that apparently wasn't part of the original plan.

"She's not a household name," said Olympic women's coach Kelli Hill, who has coached Ray at her gym in Gaithersburg since 1995. "She doesn't strive to be a household name. She doesn't have an agent. I don't want to do that with Elise. Her parents don't want to do that with her.

"Is she good enough [to be a star]? Of course. Does she have that in her? Of course. Will the media make her into that? I don't know."

Parents Bill and Ellen Ray never foresaw any of this. They originally put Elise into a gymnastics program because she seemed to like it and possess an aptitude for it. They moved her to Hill's Gymnastics when - as a promising junior gymnast - she outgrew her first gym in Millersville.

"It just turned out this way," said Ellen Ray. "We never went into gymnastics thinking about the Olympics. We just wanted a sport that she liked and would be good at. However good she got, she got. We never even considered it."

The Rays travel to her bigger events and have supported her athletic career every step of the way, but they have largely stayed in the background as she has progressed to the top of the sport.

"Both of my parents have been very supportive," Ray said. "They gave me a separate life. They let me handle it. I think that's nice. I consider myself a pretty independent person."

Maybe that shouldn't seem so refreshing, but this is the same sport that brought you teen-age superstar Dominique Moceanu, who felt so exploited that she recently petitioned the courts to "divorce" her from her parents.

Bill Ray is a psychotherapist, which could lead to all sorts of hasty conclusions about the family's desire to keep Elise grounded in a normal environment, but his wife insists that there was never any grand plan to protect their daughter's psyche.

"I don't think that Bill ever really worried a lot about her mental health," Ellen Ray said. "I think she's always been very strong. I can't say this enough: I think it has made her so well-balanced to have gone to public schools and have friends outside of gymnastics. She's always been able to see the other side of life."

That opinion is shared by Hill, whose low-key coaching style immediately appealed to the Rays.

"Kelli has always been a laid-back coach," Ellen Ray said. "Kelli never pressured Elise or us in any way at all. There was only one point, two years ago, when she sat us down and said, 'I need to know what you want to do. ... [Elise] has the potential to go to the Olympics. If that's something you're interested in, we need to make some changes in her practice schedule.'

"Kelli is a very well-adjusted coach who understands the need for a personal life."

Hill doesn't think that's so special, but public perceptions are built on the extreme cases that make headlines - such as the breakup of the Moceanu family.

"Gymnastics gets the rap of taking these girls and never letting them live, and it's not true," Hill said. "At least with me, it's not true.

"What has been very nice about Elise's family situation is the incredible amount of support from her parents. But they aren't involved in the gym at all. They aren't living their dreams through their daughter. It's a phenomenal situation."

It wasn't such a big deal until a few weeks ago. Even when Ray ranked eighth in the world championships in China, local media coverage remained modest. The U.S. nationals and the Olympic trials were a different story.

Ray won her first national title with a dramatic final vault, edging two-time champion Kristen Maloney and going on to earn the top spot in the combined rankings at the trials. Quite suddenly, she went from notable local athlete to budding Olympic star.

"All the hullabaloo has been pretty recent," Ellen Ray said. "It's been pretty normal - up until about four weeks ago. When Elise went into the worlds, she wasn't expected to anchor the team. We were just proud to have her on the team. I don't think she felt a lot of pressure on her.

"We understood how important an eighth-place finish was, but I think most people only really are impressed if you're first. I think in this country, we're very much into gold medals. When she won the nationals, that was a big thing."

Now it's time for the next big thing. U.S. gymnastics guru Bela Karolyi has ratcheted up the pressure even more by proclaiming that Ray is the leader of the team that will try to defend the Olympic team championship won by his "Magnificent Seven" in 1996.

"I hope I can live up to it," she said.

Elise Ray at a glance

Date of birth: Feb. 6, 1982

Residence: Columbia

Club: Hill's Gymnastics in Gaithersburg

Coaches: Kelli Hill, Jen Bundy

High school: Wilde Lake

College: Michigan

Olympic event: Gymnastics

Gymnastics specialty: Uneven bars

How she got to Sydney: Won her first U.S. nationals all-around title in July in St. Louis and finished first in the combined rankings at the U.S. Olympic trials in August in Boston.

The competition

Ray is the top gymnast from the United States, but the Americans aren't considered as strong as they were four years ago, when the Magnificent Seven owned the Atlanta Games. Some of the most highly regarded international stars:

Name Nation

Svetlana Khorkina Russia

Simona Amanar Romania

Ling Jie China

Victoria Karpenko Ukraine

Y. Zamolodchikova Russia

Andrea Raducan Romania

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