Saturday, August 7, 2010

Know a Coach - Mary Lee Tracy

There is not a dedicated gymnastics fan who is not aware of MLT. Even as a kid during the Atlanta Games in 1996, I knew the names of only two coaches--Bela Karolyi and Mary Lee Tracy.

That's because 1996 was arguably MLT's most successful year as an elite gymnastics coach. She sent two athletes--Jaycie Phelps and Amanda Borden--to Atlanta from her Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy, and was named Assistant Coach during those Games, as well. It was in 1996 when MLT became a name in gymnastics to the casual viewer, but it was not by any means her debut as an important influence on the sport.

It began, in fact, in 1977. Tracy was a recent high school graduate and a Ben-Gal cheerleader (the cutesy name of the Cincinnati Bengals' cheerleaders). She had a foundation in tumbling from her experience as a high school cheerleader, and when an opportunity arose to turn that foundation into a coaching job at a Cincinnati gym, she took it. According to those who worked with her, including the gym's PR director Lynne Ruhl, MLT was a quick study and had a natural gift for learning and relaying as a teacher.

In 1983, at the age of only twenty-four, MLT seized the opportunity to buy the gym, despite her fear and misgivings. She believed it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and the Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy was born in a less-than-ideal storage shed-like facility. After some renovations, both Borden and Phelps earned their Olympic berths as students in the old facility. In 1997, however, Tracy turned her new success and, one can only guess, vastly expanded income, and purchased a much more appropriate facility in Fairfield, Ohio.

Training under MLT includes sharing her philosophical ideas, and she expects her instructors to follow suit. It's a controversial standpoint, but Tracy believes in it, and does not apologize for making Bible Study a part of her gymnastics coaching style.

“I like my style,” she said in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000. “My core philosophies aren't going to change.”

After Tracy's success in 1996, there were high expectation for her to place more gymnasts on the 2000 Sydney Olympics team. With several promising prospects, including Jennie Thompson and 1996 gold medalist Dominique Moceanu, these expectations were not unreasonable.

However, in the Olympic year, Moceanu, Thompson, and Sierra Sapunar all sat out trials with injuries that just weren't going to heal in time for the Games (Thompson actually retired completely; Sapunar went to college that fall). After a sub par showing at trials, Alyssa Beckerman was named as an alternate. Only Morgan White was actually named to the squad, but after suffering a broken foot, she was replaced by another alternate, Tasha Schweikert. With five promising hopefuls under her tutelage, CGA was completely unrepresented by any athlete in Sydney. Tracy did serve as Assistant Coach to the Olympic team for the second time, with Kelli Hill serving as head coach.

In a 2004 Cincinnati Enquirer interview, Tracy said, "That was definitely the period of my career where I was feeling doubt and wasn't sure it was worth it."

Since 2000, Tracy has coached numerous elite and eventual NCAA athletes to successful careers. Her athletes have represented the US on countless international assignments, including World Championships. CGA has not placed an Olympic Team member since 2000, including alternates, but Tracy is always stocked with a groups of talented elites ready to rise up in the ranks and fight for those few precious spots.

Currently, Tracy trains Cassie Whitcomb, an athlete known for her lovely, increasingly difficult bars work; Amanda Jetter, who recently took the silver medal in the all around at the 2010 Covergirl Classic; and several talented juniors, including Lexie Priessman, who took the all around title at the first ever Nastia Liukin Cup in 2010. She also took in a gymless Kayla Williams, 2009 World vault champion, though injury forced Kayla to retire from elite competition and focus on her upcoming NCAA career.

In addition to training top level athletes, MLT has a passion for charity work, including involvement with the Special Olympics, Children's Miracle Network, and recently Pantene's Beautiful Lengths program.

Mary Lee Tracy is one of the most recognizable and successful gymnastics coaches in the United States. Her methods and techniques have been called controversial, and there is often speculation among gym fans as to what training is really like at CGA. But despite a recent lull in international successes, Tracy continues to produce gifted athletes who frequently go on to have excellent NCAA careers, and many of them speak fondly of their time training under her at CGA.

In a 2008 interview with Inside Gymnastics, Jennie Thompson said, "Even though I learned many new gymnastics skills, made two World teams and a bunch of other stuff, I will always remember those years as the time in my life when I grew into the person I am today. Mary Lee taught me how to enjoy the process of both life and gymnastics."


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