Merry-go-round points Tracy toward Atlanta

The Cincinnati Enquirer

BOSTON - Mary Lee Tracy's gymnastics empire has grown by leaps and bounds and, in the beginning, handstands.

The president of Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy stands 5-foot-9, and her height has sometimes been a handicap. When she started out at the White Oak Physical Arts Center, Tracy was unable to demonstrate a handstand on the high parallel bar because her legs would scrape the ceiling.

That building, she thinks, is a yarn shop now. If there is one constant about the coach who has brought Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps to the brink of the Olympic Games, it is a perpetual need for more space.

''We're building from the ground up this time,'' Tracy said Friday at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials. ''We're going to open the first week of November, and we'll have about 20,000 square feet. It's a big leap. It's a little scary. But just like I tell the girls, sometimes you've got to take risks.''

'It's your whole life'

Mary Lee Tracy would take a plunge in a wading pool. She bought her business on the installment plan and is currently planning its third move to a twice-as-large facility. There were 200 students when she bought in 16 years ago, and the new place will accommodate close to 2,000. Tracy has 30 employees and will likely need more. She is both magnate and magnet, and slightly overwhelmed by her success.

''You could get so wrapped up in this that you're on a merry-go-round that never stops,'' she said. ''I think I have enough energy and enthusiasm left for the business, but when you're coaching (top) gymnasts, it's your whole life.''

Every ambitious coach craves the opportunity to teach world-class talent, but that blessing can also be a burden. The elite gymnast's window of opportunity is not wide, but it demands a narrow and full-time focus. To prepare Borden and Phelps for the Olympics, Tracy has put her life largely on hold. She is a divorced mom who has resisted dating in order to make more time for her daughter and her professional priorities.

Tracy hopes to achieve better balance when the Olympics are over. She rationalizes that the merry-go-round is temporary; that she might never find two gymnasts as good as the ones she has now. She may be kidding herself.

''For me to have two kids at Olympic Trials right now is unbelievable,'' Tracy said before Friday's compulsories. ''It's a one-in-a-million thing.''

It was a one-in-a-million thing, at least. As Tracy's reputation spreads, and her gym expands, the odds of her coaching another Olympian improve. Amanda Borden gave her national prominence, and Jaycie Phelps gravitated to her gym from Greenfield, Ind. Now that Bela Karolyi has sold his operation, Tracy stands to become America's ranking gymnastics guru.

Try as she might to apply the brakes, Tracy's merry-go-round continues to pick up speed.

''I don't encourage kids to move,'' Tracy said. ''I don't want people coming to me to make their daughter an Olympian. I will not ever make promises. There are no guarantees in life.''

The chance of a lifetime

Guarantees? Mary Lee Tracy has gone through life never altogether certain of her next step. She joined the gymnastics team at Colerain High School as a means of enhancing her cheerleading skills. This helped her earn the dubious achievement of becoming a Ben-Gal during the Homer Rice era, but Tracy retained enough of the gymnastics training to land a job teaching.

''The owner of Cincinnati Gymnastics got burned out,'' Tracy said. ''I was 21 years old, and he asked if I wanted to buy the gym. I didn't have any money, but my dad said to do it. The former owner, John Thomas, let me make payments for three years.''

That was in 1980. Two months ago, Mary Lee Tracy had saved enough money and made enough time to buy her first house on a half-acre at Beckett Ridge.

''I think I'll stay on the merry-go-round till September,'' she said. ''There's a 30-city tour after the Olympics. After that, we're going to do something fun. Maybe go on a cruise.''

Maybe coach another aspiring Olympian. ''I would do it all over again,'' Tracy said.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 29, 1996.