Ray has come to realize that the pain of the 2000 Games led her to compete at the University of Michigan, which rekindled her waning love of gymnastics, which led her to coaching and eventual dream job she was appointed to in May by Husky athletic director Jen Cohen.
This is not quite the Olympic story we were inundated with for two weeks, all those uplifting tales of adversity overcome and triumph realized.
Oh, Elise Ray had adversity, all right, just without the accompanying triumph. In fact, it took the new University of Washington gymnastics coach quite a while before she could even watch the Olympics without pain. And before Ray could talk honestly about her deflating experience in 2000, when she was the captain of a U.S. women’s team thrown headlong into a highly dysfunctional environment in Sydney, Australia.
“I used to do a lot of talks after the Olympics, and I’d always say it was amazing, because I didn’t want to squash the dreams of little kids,’’ she said. “As I’ve gotten older, people ask me, and I say, ‘It was awful.’ There’s something nice about speaking the truth. The whole thing was pretty bad. So many political things going on.”
Mind you, this story has a happy ending. With the passage of time, Ray has come to realize that the pain of 2000 led her to compete at the University of Michigan, which rekindled her waning love of gymnastics, which led her to coaching, which brought her to Seattle as a UW assistant, which resulted in the dream job she was appointed to in May by Husky athletic director Jen Cohen.
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And it certainly has brought a fresh perspective about gymnastics and life that she tries to impart upon her athletes in a sport where hard-driven, Type-A personalities abound. That may or may not get you to the medal stand, but it won’t necessarily bring fulfillment.
“I tell them, let things unfold as they’re going to unfold,’’ Ray said. “As gymnasts, you’re taught to go after something and don’t stop until you get it. That’s an amazing talent to have, but there’s also value in being able to take the waves, and dodge and weave with the turns of life.
“They have a plan, and nothing is going to deter them from it. I say, ‘Guys, a lot of things are going to happen, and if you roll with it and take it as it comes, you’ll be a lot happier.’ ”
Of course, Ray wasn’t always able to follow her own advice. Now 34 and upbeat, she admits she was “tired and beat down” after the Olympics.
“I just wanted to go home,’’ she said. “I wanted to quit. I wanted nothing to do with sports and U.S. gymnastics. I wanted out.”
Ray entered the Sydney Games as the shining star of the U.S. squad that directly followed the “Magnificent Seven” that had won America’s first team gold in Atlanta in ’96. Ray won both the U.S. national championships and Olympic trials in 2000. But trouble already was brewing behind the scenes.
After the U.S. team finished sixth in the world championships, the American federation felt compelled to bring the mercurial Bela Karolyi, who had retired as the American coach after Atlanta, back into the program as “team coordinator.” The result was what the Baltimore Sun termed “ego problems, turf wars and turmoil.”
Karolyi didn’t let the gymnasts stay in the Olympic village or participate in the opening ceremony. There were issues with how Karolyi picked the squad, and how he treated the young women. One of them, Jamie Dantzscher, called Karolyi “a puppeteer” who took credit for any of the team’s success but no blame for its failures. Dominique Dawes, a holdover from 1996, also was critical of Karolyi.
The gymnasts revered U.S. coach Kelli Hill, no one more than Ray, who calls Hill her “guru” and said, “She got me to the Olympic Games. I trusted her with everything.’’
But suddenly, she said, Karolyi was “taking over and dictating everything, down to training and what we ate. I had never even met him, and he was telling me what to do in workouts. I didn’t know what to do. Kelli didn’t know how to handle it. We were all out of sorts.’’
And when the Games began, with team morale already lagging, it all fell apart for Ray. First, she suffered a shoulder injury during team prelims that she battled for the rest of the meet. But the worst moment was during the vault — Ray’s first event in the all-around competition — when she kept inexplicably falling in warmups (once nearly landing on her head) and then crashed during competition.
“I just thought I was nervous, and I was doing something different to throw something off,’’ she said. “I totally blamed myself.”
But unbelievably, meet officials accidently had set the vault apparatus five centimeters too low, which altered the trajectory of Ray and other competitors. That discovery eventually was made and relayed to Ray while she was warming up for the balance beam, a jarring revelation that further threw her off her game. Though she was the only American to qualify for an event final, she fell from the beam.
“I was battling an injury, anyway, and it took everything I had to gear up for the meet,’’ she said. “I got myself there, and I was pumped, and then something like that happened on the vault, and it was like everything popped. I went from being really high and pumped up to nothing left in the tank. It was heartbreaking.”
Ray was allowed to redo her vault, but by this time it was too late, and she finished in 13th place with her revised score. Her Olympic dreams had been pretty much shattered, as well as her love for gymnastics, at least temporarily.
The saving grace for Ray turned out to be her decision to honor her commitment to the University of Michigan. Had she medaled, Ray probably would have turned pro, but that prospect disappeared.
“I had a lot of opportunities before the Games and none after,’’ she said. “It was very clear what my path was supposed to be — go to Michigan. Through lots of love and support, college was such a healing, wonderful experience. It brought me back to loving gymnastics.”
Ray was a 14-time All-American at Michigan, winning NCAA titles in all-around, beam and bars. In 2011, Ray was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame — one year after she and her Olympic teammates belatedly, and unexpectedly, were awarded bronze medals for team competition in 2000. That came when China was stripped of its medal for having an underage gymnast in the Games.
The medal ceremony at a major meet in Hartford, Conn., was bittersweet for Ray and her teammates.
“We all stood there looking at each other. ‘What’s happening?’ ” she recalled. “Honestly, it still doesn’t feel like it’s mine. They tried to make it an event so we’d be excited about our Olympic experience. No way. It doesn’t change anything.”
Ray said her medal is at home on a bookshelf.
“I made a shadow box and put it in there,’’ she said. “I hung it for a week and then said, ‘Nope. Can’t do it.’ It calls up too much.”
Yet being tabbed forevermore as an Olympic medalist rather than a mere Olympian brings a certain cachet that Ray admits she likes. And it doesn’t hurt in her coaching career, which she launched after a 2½-year stint performing with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.
Ray loved the gig but not living in Las Vegas, so she returned to her native Maryland and dipped her toe back into gymnastics, this time as a coach and occasional television commentator. A phone call out of the blue from former Michigan coach Joanne Bowers brought her to Washington as an assistant in 2011, and when Bowers stepped down in May, Ray was tabbed to take over the Huskies program.
“I’ve felt I’ve been ready for a couple of years, and it’s incredible I get to do it here,” she said. “I love it so much, and I believe in the program.”
Ray now is able to watch the Olympics without nearly as much angst as before, and she marveled along with everyone else at the exploits of Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and the rest.
Ray is particularly gratified that she has a unique legacy in the sport: three moves on the uneven bars that are named after her. That’s how it works in gymnastics; if you’re first to perform a skill in a world championship or Olympics, it bears your name forever. Thus we have the Ray One, Ray Two and Ray Three, which are prevalent in college gymnastics and occasionally on the international scene.
“It’s my favorite part of leaving a mark on the sport,’’ she said. “It’s really cool that girls are still doing it, 16 years later. It’s very special, especially when you go into a gym to recruit. The girls training are too young to know who I am, but their coach says, ‘You’re (practicing a Ray move); this is her.’
“Their eyes light up, and it’s an amazing feeling.”