Elise Ray’s life has undergone a drastic makeover since
she captained the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in the 2000
Olympics.

Julie Pannuto
Elise Ray is all smiles during her fourth year at Michigan. (EUGENE ROBERTSON/Daily)

She’s a student at Michigan. She doesn’t need to go
to the gym to hang out with friends. She’s got a boyfriend.
You can see the biggest difference in her floor routine, where the
change isn’t in her style.

It’s in her smile.

“Gymnastics is not my life anymore,” Ray said.
“It’s so different, but in such a wonderful
way.”

But, even with the separation of more than three years and a new
life here in Ann Arbor, all it takes is one mention of her
14th-place finish in the all-around finals or her team’s
fourth-place finish to send her right back to the Sydney SuperDome,
where her 12 years of sweat and tears culminated.

Watching her describe the experience, it seems like she’s
feeling every emotion all over again: the unspoken pressure of
living up to the “golden girls” of 1996, who became the
first U.S. team to win the gold. The pain of a dislocated shoulder
suffered during the first day of team competition. The fear of a
blown vault ruining her chance at Olympic glory. The disappointment
of not being able to recover from her initial failure on the vault,
which somehow was not set to the correct height.

“Ughhh,” Ray moaned while thinking about the
unlikelihood of the Olympic officials screwing up such key
measurements. “They had the equipment wrong, so I fell, and
it absolutely stripped me of any motivation. I thought I was
done.”

Everything Ray had been doing since she was 6 led up to that
moment. In junior high, she and her parents made the decision to
join “Hill’s Angels,” an elite group of gymnasts
coached by the renowned Kelli Hill.

But this was not work befitting of an angel. Ray spent seven
hours a day in the gym — 6 to 7:30 in the morning and five
more hours after school (that doesn’t count the 45-minute
drives to Hill’s and back to her home in Columbia, Md.).
There were monthly trips to Texas for training camps — not
quite the same as a family vacation.

“It gets hard, and your body hurts, and you’re sick
of being at the gym, and you want to go on vacation, but you
can’t,” Ray said. “But I wouldn’t change
all the sacrifice for anything in the world.”

Even though Ray and her teammates in Sydney became the first
U.S. team without a medal in 30 years, she hasn’t let it sour
her memories.

“I don’t need to have a medal around my neck to
capture the whole Olympic experience,” Ray said.

 

“An internal battle”

Ray rested for three months after the Olympics and joined
Michigan for the winter stretch of the 2000-01 season, having no
idea what to expect. What she found was a more relaxed atmosphere
than what she’d known at Hill’s or in Olympic
competition. Two- or three-hour practices. Music blasting.
Teammates who were wholeheartedly behind her. As Ray put it,
everything about it was great, but she didn’t know what to
make of it.

“It was hard for her to open up and trust the people
around her,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said. “(The
Olympic experience) is so individual. We wanted to say that all of
that is behind you. We really care about you. You can trust
us.”

Gymnastics was suddenly supposed to be all about fun. But during
her first year, Ray was still in her “zone,” intense
and focused as she had been all along. The older girls on the team
tried to show her the way. Elise, calm down, chill out. It’s
just a meet.

“She was putting a lot of pressure on herself,”
Plocki said. “She didn’t look forward to coming to the
gym.”

Ray tied for the all-around national championship her freshman
year because she was still at her Olympic level. In her sophomore
year, further removed from the training at Hill’s, she began
to notice the dramatic drop-off from Olympic gymnastics to college
competition. For someone who spent her entire life trying to be the
best in the world, it was hard to settle for anything less, even
being the best college gymnast in the nation.

“The Olympic level was the ideal level for any
gymnast,” Ray explained. “Now I come to college, and it
was very different, a lower level. My routines were easier. It was
less time. It was hard for me because of the realization of where I
was and what caliber of gymnastics I used to be at compared to now.
It was an internal battle for me, telling myself it was OK not to
be at that level.”

 

“An eye-opener”

After two years of figuring out how to get the most out of
college gymnastics, Ray suffered a shoulder injury before the
beginning of her junior campaign. She was forced to redshirt and
sat out the entire season.

“It really sucked,” Ray said bluntly.

Ray accepted that she wouldn’t be able to physically help
her team, and it took just a day for her to find a new role.
Ray’s best friend, junior Chelsea Kroll, clearly remembers
when Ray came into the gym the day after her injury and gave the
team maize-and-blue beaded bracelets with inspirational quotes
attached to them.

“I took the next night and day to do some soul
searching,” Ray said. “I wanted to let them know I was
OK, that I wanted to be there for them.”

Ray took on a coaching role last season, using her immense
knowledge to help her teammates. Kroll said that then-freshman
Becca Clauson refused to perform at the NCAA Championships without
Ray on the floor to support her.

“Mentally, she was such a spirit for us,” Kroll
said.

“The girls saw what her value was in something other than
just her performance,” Plocki said.

The days of dreading training were long gone. Throughout the
entire season, Ray “craved” to be out there practicing,
struggling with her teammates every day.

“It was an eye-opener that I was still so passionate about
the sport,” Ray said. “I could have been like, ‘I
really like this down time,’ but I missed it so much. It
really made me fired up for this year.”

Ray and Kroll were named co-captains for this season and, unlike
her stint as captain of Team USA, this one is fully about the team.
Ray’s goal is to lead the program to its first team national
championship, either this year or next. But for the moment, Ray
just appreciates being able to perform again.

“I really see daily in the gym that there’s a much
higher level of enjoyment for her,” Plocki said. “In
her freshman year, it was a job — a duty.”

There’s no doubt Ray missed out on being a “normal
kid” during high school, but as she puts it, “What do
you do in high school?

“It’s cool I missed out on that.”

It’s “cool” because Ray is making up for it at
Michigan. She gets to go out with her friends whenever she wants,
and she has been dating her boyfriend for almost a year now.

“I grew up in college,” Ray said. “I never had
any of that before I came here.”

Kroll, giggling the giggle Ray had previously missed out on,
said Ray’s current relationship is “serious
stuff.”

Maybe it’s because gymnastics isn’t so serious
anymore.

J. Brady McCollough can be reached at
“mailto:bradymcc@umich.edu”>bradymcc@umich.edu.

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