Aug. 17, 2011
By Joanne C. Gerstner
On Friday, Aug. 19, former Wolverine Elise Ray, and four other gymnasts and one coach, will be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. The luncheon and induction ceremony is held in conjunction with the 2011 Visa Championships.
Elise Ray (2001-05) still vividly remembers her first day practicing as a gymnast for the University of Michigan. She was the Wolverines' prized freshman, fresh from competing in the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics for the United States.
Ray knew all eyes of her new teammates would be upon her, checking out how good this freshman hot-shot really was.
Ray was practicing on the balance beam, thrust into her dismount, and promptly botched things into a lovely crash landing. No slickness or gracefulness, certainly nothing that was Olympian-worthy.
It was just Ray, thankfully unhurt, left wondering how bad of a first impression she made.
"I just remember looking around at all of them looking at me, and thinking, 'Yeah, that was real smart, I sure look like I know what I'm doing'," Ray said. "Next thing I know, my new teammates are laughing with me, and it was like the ice was broken.
"It was a sign everything was going to be okay, in my mind, and it was."
Ray is a 14-time All-America and three-time NCAA champion. Her collegiate years proved to be a capstone to a significant elite career.
Ray will become the first Michigan gymnast to be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame Aug. 19, as she is being honored for her international, Olympic and collegiate resume.
"It's an amazing honor, and I'm really thankful and grateful," Ray, 29, said. "So much has happened in my career, and I guess I'm able just in the last few years to really sort through it all and try to make peace with everything."
Ray's path before she came to Michigan was one of promise, tinged with disappointment.
She was poised to become America's next darling at the 2000 Olympics, as she was the U.S.'s top all-around gymnast. The 1996 Atlanta women's team made household names of gymnasts such as Kerri Strug and Shannon Miller for their team gold and individual medals.
The 2000 Sydney team, headlined by team captain Ray in her first Olympics, was given the expectation to perform just as well.
Ray, a native of Maryland, had already committed to attend Michigan after the Olympics. Coach Bev Plocki had successfully recruited Ray, a huge coup for the Wolverines.
Ray qualified for the Olympic all-around finals, and hoped to win a medal. She started the all-around rotations on vault, something that changed her entire fate.
Something was clearly wrong with Ray, and many of the other gymnasts, during warm-ups. They were crashing, over and over, on their dismounts. Ray suffered some particularly nasty falls, including one where she nearly landed directly on her head.
The trajectory of Ray's vaults was off, and that wore on her confidence. Things didn't improve in the competition, as Ray again fell hard on her vaults. It was a terrible way to start the Olympic all-around finals, and Ray was shaken.
It was discovered, half-way through the meet, that Olympic officials had set the vault apparatus five centimeters too low. The affected gymnasts were allowed to retake their vaults at the end of the rotations, but by then, the physical, mental and emotional damage had been done.
Ray finished 13th, the highest of any American.
But that wasn't the final tally of the pain from Sydney. The American women's team finished fourth, tantalizingly close enough to be in medal contention.
Ray left Sydney with no medals but with enough anger and regrets to last her for years.
"What can you say? How you can you make that right?" Ray said. "You never, ever get that moment back. You go back and play the 'What ifs?' over and over in your mind. It doesn't change anything. You just make yourself crazy, which I kind of did. I came to Michigan and just needed a change. I needed to get through all of this stuff that had happened to me."
Plocki had an unusual situation on her hands, as Ray was a world-class talent who came to campus with a broken heart and a lot of resentment for gymnastics.
"I had to sit her down and have a heart-to-heart conversation," Plocki said. "It had been engrained in her that coaches are the bad guy, everything is political, teammates are the enemy, not your friends, because you are all in competition with each other for the same spot.
"I told her, 'I am not (U.S Olympic coach) Bela Karolyi, I am not (Ray's personal coach) Kelli Hill. I am here for a real athlete-coach relationship. I want to know how you are feeling, what's going on, because if you don't, I can't help you.' All of those things were foreign for her. And over time, she learned that all of us had her best interests at heart. She was definitely embraced by the team from day one, and she was so hungry for that because she has always been a team player."
Time, and positive experiences, softened Ray's anger. She enjoyed being a student-athlete and having a social life. Her world, once only consumed with the black and white of elite gymnastics, now had different shades and colors in it.
She attended social events, went to poetry slams and athletic events, made friends from around the world, and enjoyed being independent.
It was a time to grow, heal and redefine herself.
"Michigan saved me, in many ways, because of everything that it is," Ray said. "I got to live, experience the diversity, just stretch my wings and fly. I didn't realize how much I needed to do that until later. I still had gymnastics in my life, but it was fun again. I loved every minute of it because the pressure was different, and it wasn't anything negative."
Ray certainly lived up to her billing as one of the world's best gymnasts during her time at Michigan. She was a 14-time All-American, and won NCAA titles in the all-around (2001), beam (2002) and bars (2004).
She shared Big Ten Gymnast of the Year honors in 2005, was named to the All-Big Ten team in 2001, '02, '04 and '05, and was Michigan's Female Athlete of the Year in 2004. A member of four Big Ten champion teams at U-M, Ray also helped the Wolverines advance to the Super Six in 2005, capping off her career.
Ray's decision to attend college after the Olympics was somewhat ground-breaking, as many well-known gymnasts usually went the path of going pro. Ray, and 2000 Olympic teammate Kristen Maloney, walked away from the contracts and money and decided to go to school and compete collegiately.
Maloney went to UCLA, starring from 2001-05.
Ray graduated in 2005, with a degree in English. She now sees how her choice of attending college after the Olympics has influenced today's gymnasts, as several potential 2012 London Olympians are seriously considering college after the Games.
"I think Kristen and I opened that door, and I am so thrilled that that's one of the things we did," Ray said. "I can't imagine where I would be without having gone to college; it changed my life."
Plocki added, "Anything can happen now. You can train, go to the Olympics, and then come to college. Or you can even go to college and then the Olympics. Those things were unheard of a decade ago. The options are open for the gymnasts and that is fantastic to see."
Ray moved on to become part of the Cirque du Soleil troupe after graduation, spending three years in shows such as "O" and "Love" in Las Vegas. She's since retired from performing, now doing broadcasting for the Big Ten Network and coaching kids.
Still, the sad legacy of the 2000 Games remained a dark spot in her heart.
Until last year.
The International Olympic Committee, after an investigation, stripped the Chinese team of their bronze medal. It was determined the Chinese had used an underage gymnast in Sydney, a serious violation that invalidated their Olympic performance.
The U.S. team was elevated to third place, and received the bronze medals at a ceremony held during the VISA Championships in August 2010. Ray wasn't sure how she would feel about it all, given the time and emotions since Sydney.
"When they put the medal around my neck, along with my teammates, I just started bawling -- straight-up crying," Ray said. "I don't know where that came from, I wasn't expecting that to be the way I handled things. It obviously was not the same as getting the medal in Sydney, during the Olympics, being on that podium, but somehow it ended up being so emotional for me.
"I went through a lot -- some really big highs, and some horrible lows. The biggest thing I can say is I am a survivor through it all, and honors like being in the Hall of Fame or getting an Olympic medal restore your faith in everything a bit."