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Putting stars in their eyes



That's what the girls at Hill's Gymnastics think when they watch Elise Ray on the balance beam, on the vault, swinging like a fan blade on the uneven bars.

That could be me.

It's the way they've watched her all summer, especially the 12- and 13-year-olds at Level 9. Theirs is the skill group two notches below the Olympic-hopeful "elites," and from Level 9, the summit still seems a mountain away.

Until Ray.

Not so long ago she was one of them: hard-working, here for hours after school and again on Saturday, good but not great. Then all of a sudden, her game came together, and she took a magical turn toward Sydney, Australia.

It made the others think.

"You figure," says coach Amy Martelli, "there are millions of kids in this country, in hundreds of gyms that compete, and only six make it to the U.S. team. It's a dream, more than a goal, for a lot of these kids."

They tried not to stare as they trained alongside Ray and her U.S. teammate, Dominique Dawes, and under U.S. team coach Kelli Hill, who owns this gym in Gaithersburg. The Level 9 girls watched whenever it wasn't obvious, when they changed stations, say from vault to beam; when they waited their turn on the floor; when they sat outside on the curb, taking a break. They saw their heroes tumble. They saw bent knees and balance checks. But they were dazzled, too. They saw Ray grow out of moves and into harder ones. They saw her invent "The Ray" and "Ray II."

How could they not think, Maybe ... ?

The last time they gathered to watch Ray was at Coach Amy's apartment, for the Olympic trials. They held hands, covered their eyes, squealed so loudly the upstairs neighbors called to quiet them down.

Tonight, practice ends 30 minutes early. Tonight, they watch the team finals lit up with confidence that next time, it might be one of them.

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