Inside the Mirage Hotel & Casino at the hit show “LOVE,” is a familiar face to the Michigan women’s gymnastics program. The show, in which Cirque du Soleil performs Beatles songs, is the home to former Michigan gymnast Elise Ray.
She’s not tumbling across the floor or elevating off the vault, but Ray loves performing in Las Vegas, where she’s been living for more than a year and a half.
“It’s an incredible line of work,” Ray said. “We work hard for sure, but being out on that stage every night, it’s just crazy.”
Ray’s life has taken a complete turn from her days as an Olympic gymnast to her life on the strip. Nowadays, Ray relaxes during the day and then goes to work around 5 p.m., getting off around midnight.
“I love my work, it’s amazing,” Ray said. “We do 10 shows a week. It’s tough, but being out on that stage is incredible. It really is.”
But before Ray was performing in front of thousands in Sin City, she was busy becoming a legendary gymnast.
Ray didn’t have a normal childhood, to say the least.
Six days a week Ray woke up before dawn so her parents could drive her to 6 a.m. club practice. After practice ended at 7:30, Ray went to a full day of school. Then she returned to the gym from 3-8 p.m. before going home for the night.
“It was crazy,” Ray said. “I could do it because you just get in the rhythm of it. When I look back, I don’t know how I did it, the hours I did.”
Ray’s coaches advised her to attend public school, unlike most elite gymnasts, so she had a life outside gymnastics to help her stay “sane.”
Before 1999, Ray didn’t think about the Olympics for fear it would jinx her chances. But with one year left before the 2000 Summer Olympics, Ray finally gave in.
“I’m like ‘OK, now I need to make this definitive, I need to make this happen,’ ” Ray said. “When I went to championships at trials, I just put it all out there, I gave it everything I had because it was like ‘This is it.’ I made myself win to secure my spot, there was no fuss about it.”
Ray cried after her name was announced as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team. Ray, who would soon be named team captain, realized that her dream was right around the corner.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics
The aura, excitement and euphoria normally associated with the Olympic games were minimal for Ray.
The women’s gymnastics team wasn’t allowed to stay in the Olympic Village with the other athletes from around the world because the U.S. Gymnastics officials felt that the environment was a distraction. Instead, the team stayed in a girl’s dormitory. Worse, the officials didn’t allow the athletes to go to the opening ceremonies because they would be on their feet too much.
But on the mats, Ray did get to enjoy some of the special moments that come with the Olympics.
“I do remember the first time we walked into the arena,” Ray said. “It was completely overwhelming. All the equipment had the Olympic rings on it. ‘Sydney 2000’ was all over the arena. It was just like ‘Holy cow, here I am. This is it.’ And I remember that feeling very clearly.”
After settling in, Ray thrived in Sydney. She was the lone U.S. gymnast to qualify for the final of an individual event, the beam. But even the competition wasn’t all that Ray had hoped for, as her entire team was done and spending time with their families while Ray was forced to train by herself. After a month of training before the games, she was tired and ready to take a break.
“Of course I was happy and I was proud of myself for qualifying on those events,” Ray said. “I really tried to focus in and enjoy the experience. I wish I could say it was wonderful, but it was difficult.”
The individual event finals featured a very rare occurrence in gymnastics: The vault, which is usually set at 49 inches, was incorrectly set at 47 inches.
The vault was Ray’s first event, and because of the incorrect height, she fell. At the time, no one knew of the problem, and both Ray and her coach were baffled at her fall. After the third event, she learned of the mistake and was given the option to redo her vault. She took the chance and hit both of her routines. But in the end, Ray believes that had the vault been set correctly, her mental attitude and adrenaline would have stayed high, and she would have scored better overall.
“This never ever happens,” Ray said. “And here I was at the most important competition of my life, and it’s happening. When I think about it now even, it’s shocking that it could happen.”
The team finished third overall and Ray finished 13th in the all-around and eighth in the beam final to finish up her career – for the time being.
After the Olympics, Ray didn’t know if she wanted to continue to compete. Luckily for Michigan and Ray, she chose to carry on with her gymnastics career.
“One reason I chose Michigan was because as soon as I walked on campus I was in love,” Ray said. “I loved the little city that it is. I just loved going to coffee shops and reading and writing. And I just loved being on campus.”
In Jan. 2001, Ray joined the Wolverines and her impact was immediately felt in the gym.
She shared the 2001 NCAA All-Around title and was named a first-team All-American.
During her time as a Wolverine, Ray became one of the most decorated Michigan gymnasts ever. She was named an All-American three more times and won the NCAA National Championships in the balance beam (2002) and uneven bars (2004). And in 2004 and 2005, Ray was named the NCAA Northeast Region Gymnast of the Year.
Outside of her statistical accomplishments, it was the team philosophy that Ray remembers most.
At Michigan she was engrossed in a team-oriented situation, something she never got in club gymnastics.
“I’m so thankful that it all worked out and I was able to use my gymnastics for the University,” Ray said. “I wish I could go back and start over again.”
Ray’s most memorable part of competing at Michigan had nothing to do with scores or individual awards.
“We loved each other, and we supported each other,” Ray said. “The girls at Michigan were like my sisters, I mean it was always all together.
Since Ray enjoyed a more diverse lifestyle in Ann Arbor, she could put time into academics and enjoy her life outside gymnastics.
“It was like a relationship,” Ray said. “We gave them everything we had academically and athletically, and they provided us with this education of this renowned university.”
Ray graduated with an English degree and plans to use it once she is done with her work in Vegas.
Back in Vegas
Ray loves her time in Las Vegas and realizes it’s her last stop before switching career paths. In the future, she wants to get into writing and may even start with children books. Her time at Michigan allowed Ray to strengthen her love for writing as well as enjoy four more years of gymnastics.
“Before college I didn’t know if I really wanted to continue in gymnastics because I was a little bit burnt out,” Ray said. “But it was the best decision of my life. It relit my love for the sport, and I became passionate again about gymnastics.”