The first phone call was from a former athlete to the coach she loved.
Elise Ray was at a crossroads. After finishing her career as a gymnast at Michigan, she’d performed for Cirque du Soleil for three years, then worked briefly as a trainer and broadcaster. Like many athletes whose careers had come to an end, Ray wasn’t sure what was next. So she called Bev Plocki, her college coach, and asked for advice.
“I haven’t really found that thing that I love,” Ray told her.
Plocki responded: “Elise, in my opinion, you were born to coach gymnastics.”
It was the first of three phone calls that came to define Ray’s career.
A decade after that first call of advice, the two women — at the helm of their own programs in Michigan and Washington — scheduled a meet against each other. It should have been perfect, a coach and her protege, reunited where it all began, this time as competitors.
Except, in a twist of irony, Ray — now known as Elise Ray-Statz after getting married in 2017 — is pregnant and due in a few weeks. She wasn’t cleared to travel to Ann Arbor.
But Plocki has no doubt that the Washington team she’ll be seeing Saturday, part of a tri-meet with Texas Woman’s, will have Ray-Statz’s fingerprints all over it.
Elise Ray hadn’t been any average gymnast. She was a star.
She trained under legendary coach Kelli Hill, reached the elite level as a teen, then won a USA Gymnastics national championship at the age of 18. Later that year, she went to the Olympics.
The 2000 Olympics were in Sydney in September. Ray was selected as one of six gymnasts to represent the U.S, the team captain of what was supposed to be a follow-up to the “Magnificent Seven,” which four years earlier had become the first American team to win Olympic gold. There were heaps of expectations.
Everything went wrong.
Ray dislocated her shoulder during the competition. She competed through it, but wasn’t the same. Not only did the team fail to defend its gold, it came away without a single medal (at least until a decade later, when the team was awarded a bronze medal due to the retroactive disqualification of the Chinese team).
In the all-around final, officials accidentally set the vault two inches too low. After sitting both her vaults, Ray fell off the beam. Though she got a do-over on the vault, the beam score stood, and she finished 13th.
“It was a very heartbreaking experience in Sydney just because the expectations were really high for us and so many things went wrong on multiple layers, and so we just left there and came home feeling like a disappointment,” Ray-Statz said. “ … And I just really felt like I wanted to be done with gymnastics because I was heartbroken."
“I just was done.”
But her career was just beginning. Only three months after getting back from Sydney, Ray joined the Wolverines as a freshman. Her first meet was less than two weeks later.
The second phone call came from a coach in need.
It was 2011, and Joanne Bowers had just done the hardest thing she’d ever had to do: She’d fired an assistant.
Wanting someone to confide in, Bowers — at the time the head coach at Washington — turned to Plocki, with whom she had worked as an assistant coach at Michigan. Bowers told Plocki of the sudden opening on her staff and asked if Plocki knew anyone who might be interested.
“As a matter of fact,” Plocki told her, “I don’t know if you can get her to come to the other side of the world in Seattle, but I know that Elise Ray is interested in potentially coaching collegiate gymnastics.”
As a competitor, Ray had been a natural observer and frequently asked questions of her coaches. She knew how to lead a team, and her name came with built-in respect. Unlike many former elites, Ray had always been a team player, and that stood out from the beginning.
Maybe, just maybe, Ray thought, this could be the next step she was looking for.
Bowers offered her the job, and in 2011, Ray-Statz officially became a college coach.
The first time she competed on vault as a Wolverine her freshman year in 2001, Elise Ray did a Yurchenko layout.
Here was the captain of the U.S. Olympic team, already a national champion, doing a vault with one-and-a-half fewer twists than the one she’d done in Sydney just months earlier. People expected her to come flying out of the gate, so it was shocking when she kept it simple.
But that was part of Michigan’s plan. Ray had been injured, and she was still hurting from her Olympic experience. Plocki wanted to afford her the space to heal, physically and mentally.
“She’s been through a ton and we’re trying to give her some space and a little bit of down time and healing for this,” Plocki said. “There’s no need for us to go a thousand miles an hour out of the gate and I just kept telling her, trying to reassure her and people who would ask me, don’t you worry about that. When she needs to be ready at the end of the season, she will be ready.”
Sure enough, that very season, Ray won an NCAA title in the all-around.
And the team environment provided Ray with the tools she needed to truly heal.
In college gymnastics, rosters are bigger, so gymnasts only have to compete on their strong events. The lowest score on every event is dropped. And the best teams require high-level contributions from everyone.
Ray struggled to open up to her coaches and teammates about her experience in Sydney, but people could sense that something wasn’t right. So they helped convince her that this experience would be different.
With Michigan, Ray wasn’t expected to be perfect. She wasn’t Elise Ray, Olympic Gymnast. She was just one of the Wolverines.
“You are competing for your teammates, you’re competing for your university, and that’s a very different feeling than I ever had competing in gymnastics,” Ray-Statz said. “And it was incredible because you’re doing something beyond yourself, which is always more motivating.”
Ray quickly gained respect among her teammates. She cheered on their successes as much as her own. If she believed Michigan could do something, everyone did.
Plocki likened Ray’s college journey to the stock market. There were always ups and downs. It wasn’t a straight upward trajectory; things like this never are.
But everyone noticed that the Ray who joined the Wolverines wasn’t the Ray who left them.
When she competed, Ray’s eyes began to sparkle and her face began to glow again. Little by little, Plocki watched as Ray regained her love for gymnastics and grew into the best gymnast the program had ever had.
Ray set numerous Michigan records, winning 14 All-American honors and three individual national championships while leading the Wolverines to the Super Six finals three times. But the part that will always stick with her is the transformative environment her coaches created. Plocki and assistant coach Scott Sherman, too, say their greatest accomplishment with her wasn’t the titles she won, but the spark she found.
Though she never questioned her decision to come to Michigan, Ray was ready to be done with the sport after the Olympics. At the conclusion of her Wolverines career, she wanted a way to stay involved.
Michigan had given Ray a place where she could fail. A place where she could heal. A place that planted the seeds for the next stages of her life.
In 2016, Bowers stepped down to be closer to family. Ray was offered the job. So she turned to Plocki, the woman who had helped her find love in gymnastics again, looking for guidance. That was the third phone call.
“What do you think?” Ray asked.
“What do you mean, what do I think?” Plocki responded. “There are so many people around the country that have put in years and years and years as assistant coaches that would die, a Division I, Pac-12 head coaching position is gonna fall into your lap and you’re calling me asking me, ‘What should I do?’ ”
Ray had always been a homebody. She wanted a family and children, and she wasn’t sure how a head-coaching career would fit into that. But if there was anyone who knew how to juggle those considerations, it was Plocki, who’d successfully balanced coaching and family life for years.
“The beauty of being a head coach, Elise, is that you have the ability to create, to build your staff in a way that works for you,” Plocki told her during the conversation.
Plocki assured Ray that she could juggle family life with gymnastics. All she needed was to be upfront about her desire and hire assistants who could take some of the stress off, particularly in recruiting. So Ray took the job.
Washington isn’t the easiest place to win in gymnastics. Ray-Statz’s Huskies have to compete with Pac-12 powers like UCLA, Stanford and Utah. But in her first season at the helm in 2017, Ray was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after leading Washington to nationals for the first time in 19 years, where it finished eighth — the second-best placing in program history. The next year, the Huskies followed that up with another record-breaking eighth-place finish, this time in the regular season, and won the floor championship at NCAA Regionals.
Last year, Michigan’s coaches found out that an opponent they’d scheduled had pulled out of a meet. So they sent out an email to the coaching body, asking if anyone was interested in filling the empty date.
Texas Woman’s was the first to respond. But when Ray-Statz and her staff got the email, they couldn’t let the opportunity pass. So the dual meet became a tri-meet, with the Huskies added in.
No one knew when the meet was scheduled that Ray-Statz would be eight months pregnant and she wouldn’t be cleared to travel with the team.
But maybe that’s a testament to everything Ray-Statz took from her former coach. Plocki showed Ray-Statz how to find a passion for gymnastics again. She served as a model for how to lead a program and how to foster gymnasts’ growth. And she told Ray-Statz that coaching was something she was meant to do — and something she could make work.
There’s something Ray-Statz likes to call “the Washington bubble.” When it’s time for a meet, the Huskies focus only on themselves. The other team doesn’t play into the equation. But Ray-Statz knows that during the meet on Saturday, she’ll be glued to social media. And for that day, she’ll closely follow not just her own team, but Michigan, the place where all this started.