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West Linn girl overcomes the odds

Amazing comeback gives Raynah Cheng another state gymnastics title

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Portrait of a gymnast. Raynah Cheng proved to be a fast healer and a terrific competitor when she won her third straight state gymnastics title.Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTOS - Good things come in small packages, as Raynah Cheng proved with her dynamic performances in the final gymnastic meets of the season.Among the great apostles of winning, like Vince Lombardi and Gen. George S. Patton, you now must include Raynah Cheng.

The 9-year-old West Linn girl belongs in such august company because of the way she recently won her third straight Level 5 Oregon Women’s State Gymnastics Championship. Winning three straight titles is impressive enough on its own, but the way she won her third crown was truly special. In preseason training, Raynah suffered an injury so severe that her parents, coaches and just about everyone who knew her did not expect her back for this year.

But when it comes to winning and facing adversity, she is made of the right stuff. In fact, she’s a powerhouse.

“We didn’t think it was possible,” said Audrey Cheng, Raynah’s mother. “The competition is so fierce, and she was out seven weeks. I was in a state of disbelief.”

“It was hard to believe Raynah was able to come back,” said Steve Cheng, Raynah’s father. “Parents fear an injury to their child because it might mean their career could be over. What do you do when something you love so much is taken away?”

On Sept. 12, Raynah was going through a typical workout and getting ready for another gymnastics season with her Westside Academy team. Then, there was an accident. One of her feet did not clear the bar on a bar routine, and she fell and fractured her left elbow. The expectations that she would win another state championship immediately dropped to zero.

The injury happened on a Friday. She was back in the Westside gym on Saturday, with a cast on her arm, to let her teammates know she was okay and to do a couple of hours of conditioning work. It was obvious that Raynah was 4 feet 5 inches and 59 pounds of courage. But it still seemed she would have no chance to compete this year.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Coach Susan Engle and Raynah were exultant after she returned to action and immediately started winning meet titles. Raynahs return to top form amazed Engle.“No, I didn’t expect Raynah to compete at all,” said Susan Engle, head gymnastics coach at Westside Academy. “As a coach it was very heartbreaking to see her injured right before the season. The worst part of my job is when my kids get injured.”

Raynah wasn’t talking a lot. But she had her own private timetable about returning to competition. She kept coming to practice, doing conditioning exercises, and her arm started healing much sooner than people expected.

“My coach told me there was a possibility I could get back,” Raynah said. “I felt sad when I saw my friends competing.”

As fast as her arm was healing, Raynah was running out of time. To qualify for sectionals, a gymnast had to score at least 31 points in five meets. Raynah had missed seven weeks and the season was down to one more meet by the time she was able to start training again. Appropriately, the fifth meet was entitled, “The Last Chance Qualifier.” But she wanted to compete and go to state again. Raynah, who said, “My arm didn’t bother me at all,” was not fearful. But the people who loved her were.

“I was so scared for her,” Audrey Chang said. “Especially when she got up on the bars. You don’t know how much of a role fear will play when you come back. Her coaches said they had never seen anyone come back so soon from an injury.”

“Raynah was cleared to practice again on the first Monday of November,” Engle said. “I was babying her and wanting her to take it slow, and she was getting frustrated. I thought maybe she could compete in one event. But by Friday she was doing all four events. I let her mom make the decision whether Raynah could compete or not. She said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’

“At the meet I was asking her every three seconds if she was having any pain.”

There was no pain. Raynah dominated the meet by scoring 35 points, qualifying for sectionals with points to spare. The only pain suffered was by gymnasts from opposing teams who had been scoring big while Raynah was out of action. As Engle said, “She pushed them off the podium.”

Winning was awesome enough, but for Engle there was something extra she saw in Raynah’s performance.

“The truly amazing thing was Raynah regained her whole skill set,” Engle said. “She got all of her skills back in a week.”

After turning into a human highlight reel in the final regular season meet, it was a matter of course for Raynah to win sectionals and then state.

Raynah started showing signs of being a great little athlete when she was just 3 years old.

“I liked doing cartwheels and running and handstands,” Raynah said. “My mom noticed it.”

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTOS - Raynah triumphantly waves the team trophy for winning the state championship, along with her Westside Academy teammates and coaches.Raynah’s family was much more oriented to academics and music than sports. But when she was 6 years old, her mom had her try out for the team at Metro Gymnastics. She made the team.

“The Metro coaches noticed she was talented,” Audrey Chang said.

At age 7, Raynah moved to Westside and immediately started filling up her trophy case. Looking back on winning her first state title, Raynah said, “I didn’t realize it was that big a deal.”

Maybe it was because she is so used to excelling. Just this year, Raynah has taken first place in three piano competitions, the Romantic Festival, the Trula Whelan Concerto Competition and the Classical Festival.

In fact, Raynah has such great potential as a musician that the only person who saw a ray of light when she fractured her arm was her piano teacher Elizabeth Stern, an outstanding teacher in Lake Oswego for many years and now a resident of Clackamas. When Audrey Change called Stern from the emergency room after Raynah’s injury, Stern had a message for her: “Don’t you want to do the piano now?”

Maybe Raynah will want to concentrate on the piano someday. A fourth-grader at West Linn’s Three Rivers Charter School, she mentioned perhaps giving up gymnastics after reaching Level 8. However...

“I’m not sure,” Raynah said. “It’s really fun getting first.”

Cliff Newell can be reached at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or cnewell@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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