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Buffalo’s Best: No. 6 female – Lisa Zeis-Benedict

The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s No. 6 among women:

Name: Lisa Zeis-Benedict.

Sport: Gymnastics.

Hometown: Cheektowaga.

High school: West Seneca West.

Career overview: Zeis got her start in gymnastics at age 4. By age 13 she was the only elite-level gymnast in New York State, and she placed 10th at the U.S. Junior Nationals. At 14, in 1979, she made her first appearance at the U.S. Senior Nationals, where she placed fifth in the vault. She scored a 10.0 on the vault at the Parkettes Invitational. She was on a U.S. team that competed in Taiwan late that year. At the 1980 U.S. Championships in Utah, Zeis tied for seventh overall and took third with a spectacular balance-beam performance. A month later came the U.S. Olympic Trials, although President Carter already had announced the country would boycott the upcoming Games in Moscow. Zeis placed eighth and earned a spot on the national traveling team. She competed in Holland, Germany, New Zealand and China. At an 11-nation “alternate Olympics” meet Team USA held in Hartford, Conn., Zeis earned bronze in the vault. She finished one spot behind and two spots ahead of Chinese gymnasts who would go on to win bronze medals at the ’84 Olympics. She placed ninth all-around at the U.S. Championships and was fifth at the World Trials, where she tied for the best balance beam score (9.75). An injury prevented her from competing in the World Championships in Moscow. Along the way, Zeis accumulated 24 gold medals at the Empire State Games, a record for any sport. As a collegian at Arizona State, she earned eight All-America honors and won two NCAA titles, in the beam in 1985 and the floor exercise in 1986.

Update: Zeis’ husband, David Benedict, is chief operating officer for the Auburn University athletics department. They have twin 13-year-old sons, Sam and Jake.

Home cooking: Zeis was tutored by Peter and Cindy Sielski and Kathy Gleason at the Gleason School of Gymnastics.

“For many, you have to live in a different state and move away from your family to get the training to be able to compete at an elite level,” Zeis-Benedict said. “I was so lucky to have Kathy, Peter and Cindy right here in Western New York. I didn’t have to move or leave my family.”

No Olympics: Zeis stood fifth entering the final event at the ’80 Olympic Trials, but she fell on her final tumbling pass in the floor exercise to finish two spots shy of the six-member team, one spot shy of alternate. Of course, Team USA boycotted anyway. Just a year later, Zeis traveled with the U.S. World team to Moscow.

“We weren’t into politics,” Zeis-Benedict said. “In women’s gymnastics you peak so young and you get one chance. It was sad because everyone worked so hard. The next year I went to Moscow for the worlds and I remember the buildings were so beautiful in Red Square. But that was very strange. We boycotted, but then it was OK to go to Moscow for the Worlds just a year later?”

Brilliant beam: One of Zeis’ most satisfying routines was her meet-best score on the beam at the U.S. Trials.

“A lot of people don’t like to compete on beam,” Zeis-Benedict said. “It’s 4 inches wide. Anything can happen. It was the second last event. I was so comfortable and confident in that routine. I had a flip mount that not a lot of people did. After I landed and completed that routine, I felt proud after that moment. I was always comfortable on beam. A lot of times they would put me first in the international competitions because I was so comfortable, whereas going first would get people nervous.”

Thankful: From the time she was in seventh grade, Zeis left school at 11:30 a.m. every day to train upwards of seven hours a day.

“It takes a lot of support from everyone to make any successful athlete,” she said. “My mom was with me all the time. We had a 40-minute drive back and forth to the gym. My sisters and my brother sacrificed a lot as far as my mom being with me a lot of the time. My school system and my town were so supportive. Buffalo as a community pretty much wrapped its arms around me and helped me so much. You don’t have that a lot of places.”