Calli Ryals vividly remembers the times when she and her club gymnastics team in Ohio used to travel to Baltimore to compete against a club team featuring future teammate and 2000 Summer Olympian Elise Ray.
“We used to go to this one meet a year, the Maryland Classic,” Ryals said after finishing up practice yesterday. “And I used to think, ‘OK, now I get the chance to compete against Elise Ray.'”
A giggle interrupted Ryals.
“Really?” Ray asked back, sounding flattered.
“Yup,” quipped back Ryals, before both broke into short laughter.
Elise Ray and Calli Ryals have a lot to laugh about these days.
That’s because the sophomores are putting together the finest year ever by two Michigan gymnasts.
According to the GymInfo polls released yesterday, Ryals and Ray are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, respectively, in the all-around competition.
“The rankings are pretty cool,” Ray said. “It’s a nice confidence booster, but at the same time we both have to keep our focus on what’s to come.”
It’s the first time in the history of Michigan coach Bev Plocki’s program that two gymnasts have ever held the top two spots in the nation.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had the combination of kids in the same recruiting class this good,” Plocki said. “We knew right away what Elise would be able to contribute, and we knew Calli had the potential. But it’s really awesome to see that one-two punch.”
That “one-two punch” has won 36 of the team’s 40 event titles, earned six Big Ten Gymnast of the Week awards (three apiece) and has helped guide Michigan to a top-5 team ranking.
Inevitably the question arises: Are the two rivals?
Ray is forced to smile. “I knew that question was coming up.
“I just don’t think we have any rivalry. The team has got to come first, and if we are both doing well then we are both doing well for the team.”
Ryals couldn’t agree more.
“You’re just trying to get dirt from us,” Ryals said with a smirk, “and there really isn’t anything. We hang out all the time.”
The two agree that they don’t compete over anything, not gymnastics, not school (where Ryals is an economics major and Ray is still undecided), nothing.
“The thing with us is that we have our own strengths and weaknesses,” Ryals says. “For instance, Elise is really great on bars (where she is second in the nation individually, while Ryals excels on the floor,) and we are able to show off our different skills.”
While Ray came to Michigan fresh off of a trip to the Olympics and won a share of the individual NCAA Championships just six months later, Ryals didn’t truly evolve into a dominant gymnast until this year.
“Calli has really developed over the last year – tremendously,” Plocki said.
Ryals attributes her sudden rise this year to just being around Ray: “One of the best things about having some of the top girls in the nation on your team is that they motivate you to work harder and get better.”
And even Ray, the former Olympian, gets motivated sometimes by her teammates.
“You know, self motivation is one of the hardest things in sports,” Ray said. “When you have top athletes around you, they just push you harder.”
The duo has been so dominant that, in the 12 meets the Wolverines have competed in this year, one of the two has finished in first 10 times. At the State of Michigan Classic in early February, Ryals won four out of a possible five event titles, while Ray has won three or more event titles in a meet on three different occasions this year.
Michigan will need the two of them more than ever over the next month as it heads to Columbus Saturday for the Big Ten Championships and then prepares for the NCAA regionals and NCAA Championships.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a dream season for me just because the biggest part of the season is yet to come, and we haven’t gotten there yet,” Ryals said. “I don’t get too caught up in rankings, because when we go to Nationals those rankings are gone.”
And if one of them does win the individual national championship this year something is for sure: Michigan’s “one-two punch” of Calli Ryals and Elise Ray would want that team championship even more.
“The team championship is everything,” Ryals said. “All that individual championship stuff, well, that’s just irrelevant.”