ELISE: So of course I said it wasn’t everything I hoped it would be. It was horrible. Everything about it was horrible.[[INTRO MUSIC]]
JESSICA: This week on the show, US national champion, Olympic bronze medalist, and NCAA champion Elise Ray.
ALLISON TAYLOR: Hey gymnasts. Elite Sportz Band is a cutting edge compression back warmer that can protect your most valued asset, your back. I’m Allison Taylor on behalf of Elite Sportz Band. Visit elitesportzband.com. We’ve got your back.
JESSICA: This is episode 31 for May 1, 2013. I’m Jessica O’Beirne from masters-gymnastics.com.
BLYTHE: I’m Blythe from The Gymnastics Examiner
JESSICA: And this is the only gymnastics podcast ever. And the best. Today we’re bringing you a special show devoted exclusively to our interview with Elise Ray. Next week we will be back with our regular show. And we’re going to have a special show. Scott Bregman will be here from USA Gymnastics. And he and Uncle Tim will discuss men’s NCAA championships which is basically like a whole preview of the world championships in Belgium later this year. We’ll also have a special give away. We’re doing a special contest. We’ll announce the winners next week of our Gymnerd challenge for April, make a meme. Until then, I want to remind you guys that you can support the show by recommending it to a friend, you can rate us or write a review on iTunes, you can download the Stitcher app and listen to us there without using up any space on your phone or mobile device. And the other way you can support the show is by donating and thank you so so much to everybody who has donated so far. You can find the donate button on our website on our about page or on our side navigation. Thank you all so so much. Remember you guys can always contact us at email@example.com by calling 415-800-3191 or you can call on Skype if you’re abroad. If you have Skype, you can find us that way. Leave us a message there. Our username is Gymcastic Podcast. And remember you can always find us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Google Plus, etc. There’s a transcript of all of our shows on the website. They’re usually up a week or two after the show airs. And remember you can follow along with the episode by going to our website and you can see all the routines, events, and things we’re talking about on the show. So next week we will be back at our regular time with our contest and giveaway. So see you guys then and I hope you enjoy this episode.
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2000 US All Around Champion and Olympic bronze medalist Elise Ray came into her own at a time when USA women’s gymnastics was going through a period of great transition. As part of the so called “guinea pig generation” that tested out the semi centralized national training centers while preparing for the 2000 Olympic Games, Elise has been frank about the ups and downs during her time in elite gymnastics. She rediscovered her love for the sport while competing for the University of Michigan and has brought it and high expectations to the University of Washington, where she is an assistant coach. So let’s start off the the kind of obvious with you. When I think about your gymnastics, you’re remembered for your release skills on bars. The toe on Tkatchev, I’d never seen that before. I remember when you debuted it and the transition from low to high which everybody’s doing right now. And I was just always wondering how did these moves come about? Was it Kelli in the gym saying try this and try this or was it you being innovating and being like hey look what i could do?
ELISE: Haha! No I have to give all the credit to Kelli. I mean bars, I believe, was her favorite event to coach and my favorite event to do so between the two of us, we had a lot of fun. She was always a huge proponent of basics so we spent a lot of time on basics and doing a lot of circle skills, one of which obviously was a toe shoot. I got pretty strong with the toe shoot and learned the Shaposh first and then sort of like you said, hey let’s try this. She sort of spotted me through it on low bar and we eventually moved it up to high bar and yeah it just kind of went from there. But it definitely was her saying hey let’s try this and me saying yeah let’s do it and just playing from there.
BLYTHE: Can you tell us a little bit more about Kelli as a coach? We’ve seen her on TV but what’s it like working with her in the gym?
ELISE: Kelli’s just phenomenal. I get teary-eyed every time I talk about her coaching because I just love her so much. She, in a nutshell I suppose, is tough as nails but so smart and so fair and just knew her athletes inside and out. So though she would be coaching a group of eight, she really never coached a girl the same way. She just got to know our buttons, what motivated us, what drove us, what we needed on a day-to-day basis. Whether that was yelling at us to motivate us to get us going or her just genuinely knowing that we were having a hard time and maybe that day was a day we needed to take it a little lighter. I just felt all the time that I could let go and let her coach and I could just do what I was told and I just trusted her 1000%.
BLYTHE: Tell me about your buttons. What motivated you and what stressed you out.
ELISE: What stressed me out was thinking about the big picture too much. My immediate support system, which was my family, Kelli of course, my teammates, were all very good at keeping things in perspective in a very small way. So practice by practice and meet by meet and year by year. You know it was a huge joke in my family that we could never say the word Olympics because it was just too much for me. So we literally did not talk about it until I made it. Because I wouldn’t let them. I just took it competition by competition. And that’s the way Kelli coached as well. We had this great partnership and understanding. And she knew that about me as an athlete. We just took at one practice at a time We really kept the pressure off of me and kept the focus on what I had to do. In regards to in the gym, to be perfectly honest, I was pretty moody. Some days I would just come in raring to go and some days I would be driving there thinking I don’t know how I’m going to get through this day. And like I said, Kelli just knew that in me. So the days that I felt great, I didn’t need much push. I would just go in and get the job done. But the days I felt like I couldn’t, she really knew how to get me going. And whether that was being really tough on me and saying you know it’s up to you. We’re going to be here as long as it takes. It was really like it’s up to you Elise. And she could just push the buttons in the sense of being tough and holding her high expectations no matter what. And some days it really was like I have got to find a way to do this so I can get these assignments done and keep getting better. An athlete can’t do that on her own. And I would rely on her for that, I think looking back. Because the hardest practices where I would be crying and she would be yelling and of course every gymnast has gone through this, at the time felt so horrible and so unfair and how am I going to get through this day? But now looking back, it was like boy did I need that so badly. You know when you’re at that level, you can’t let any practice go to waste. Everything counts and every practice is to get you better. She just knew me. And she knew when she needed to push. And she knew some days when I was having a hard time and I couldn’t get it to go and couldn’t get it right, she knew I was giving it all I had. She could just look at me and know ok. Alright missy we’re just going to back off a little today. Let’s go back to basics. Let’s go back. She was just so smart that way and coached everybody so individually. She just knew her athletes inside and out.
BLYTHE: And yet it’s very funny when I think about you at the national championships, at the world championships, what I remember is, and I went back and watched a few of your routines this week, my goodness. She makes it look so effortless and so beautiful.
ELISE: Thank you! I don’t know what else to say on that.
BLYTHE: Really, looking at your gymnastics, I never saw the struggle. With some athletes, you can see the struggle and the hours they put in to get it to that point. With you, I never thought that was the case.
ELISE: Well thank you so much. It is the beauty of our sport that we can make it look that way but I had to work very hard for that, for it to look that way. I mean I was blessed with form and lines and the type of body that could show that I suppose but, and also a coach who really harped on basics and lines and toe point and those basics. Those clean lines, stuff like that. But oh my gosh, I seriously had to work for it. In all honesty, I was not an athlete that could slack off and still do it. I had to put in the time. And though I was blessed with a lot of talent for sure, I certainly had to back it up with hard work. I would never have gotten that far. I was never the gymnast who could take a few days off and come back and be exactly where you were when you left off. I would take a few days off and come back and everybody would be like who are you? What happened? I wasn’t a quick teach like Jamie Dantzscher. I had to work for vault and I had to work for tumbling. My easier events, were I suppose it shows, was beam and bars but I certainly had to put the work in to find consistency on those but those actual elements came to me easier.
BLYTHE: I see. And most of the time, we ask the people, the Olympians that we’ve talked to, at what point did you start thinking that the Olympics could be a reality for you. I’d like to ask you at what point did you deliberately stop thinking about the Olympics and ask your family not to talk about the Olympics? How many years did that go on before 2000?
ELISE: Uh let’s see. I got to Hill’s around I think 1996 because it was right when Dawes was going through all of the trials and going on to the Olympics. And at that time, I was a junior elite I believe but really taking a step back and a lot of time to go back to all of my basics. I was a little rough around the edges when I got to her. And I suppose it wasn’t until 1998 or so that I got really serious in terms of let’s do this elite thing. We made a decision amongst my family and with Kelli about doing two-a-days. And that was a very good decision because it was sort of like coming to two paths. You can take this path and stay a good level 10 and maybe an okay elite or we can do two-a-days and kick it into high gear. And obviously it was as very monumental meeting that we had with my family and Kelli. I remember it like yesterday. And it was so interesting because Kelli just sat there so quiet and just let me decide. I asked her about it later. Maybe a year ago or something. I was like I remember you being so quiet and letting my family and I decide and she was like well I had to. It had to come from you 100%. I was like were you nervous about my decision? She was like oh yeah but I couldn’t push you in one direction. It had to come from you. When Worlds came around in 99 and I was sort of stepping my way up in the elite scene, that was when we stopped talking about it. I mean we never really talked about it before but that was when it was like ok I’m in the elite scene now and the year of the Olympics is approaching and then boom let’s not talk about it at all.
BLYTHE: I see. And what was it like being a junior elite and watching Dominique Dawes go through the 96 Trials process and everything that happened afterwards when the Magnificent 7 just exploded and were everywhere. Did that influence any of your decisions and did it motivate you? What impact, if any, did that have on you as an elite gymnast?
ELISE: I have to say that it was pretty minimal just because I was pretty new at Hill’s and I was just sort of having a good time and working hard with my group of girls that I was with and we were just sort of having fun getting better. I wasn’t really even thinking about the 2000 Olympics. I didn’t even really know how good I was. I knew there was a reason why I switched to Hill’s and I suppose I knew that I wanted to go elite but I didn’t really think past that. I didn’t really even know if I could or if I was good enough or anything like that. So watching Dawes at the time, I was young. It was very exciting because I had just come to that gym and everybody was just so loving and supporting of her. And Kelli put me in the senior international group as soon as I got there and I remember being so intimidated and so like what am I doing in this group but that’s exactly why she did it because I rose to the occasion. I was training with these girls that were so much better than me and girls that were trying for the Olympics and going through the senior international elite process. And I didn’t even know what that was. It was very overwhelming but that’s exactly why she did it and it made me so much better because I didn’t want to be that little girl who couldn’t keep up. I think Kelli knew that about me right away. And we watched a lot of the Olympics as a team on TV and stuff and it was pretty incredible. It was pretty incredible for the team and of course it was a good Games for Dawes individually. I just remember watching it for very much what it was. And of course looking up to Dawes and loving her as a teammate and a friend and being inspired more so by the work she put in in the gym and it translating into success but not so much as me being inspired saying I want to do that. Because again, I just didn’t know how good I was or where I fit in. I just didn’t think too far ahead.
BLYTHE: Yes, and even so, you know, four years later you were the senior national champion, and at what point did you start to get comfortable and get in the zone and start feeling like, you know, “I belong at these big international meets, and I can do this”? When did you really like take charge of your gymnastics?
ELISE: My first instinct is to say at the very end. I think I knew I was getting better as the years went on obviously, sort of going from a junior to a senior. I honestly can’t even remember where I placed in there or how I was doing, but I just remember feeling that I was getting better, and feeling more comfortable on that stage, and being comfortable with the other competitors who were now becoming my friends, things like that. But my most prominent memories are Nationals and Trials where I had decided I would win them because I didn’t want to take any chances of not making the team! [LAUGHS] So, I suppose sort of leaving that year – I guess it was really that year, because those camps at that time were so important. Every single camp was important. I remember, like you said, I guess sort of taking charge of that and making sure I was being the best gymnast I could be all the time, because it counted so much. But, competition-wise it was really was just at the end there. In my mind, I just decided there was no option other than winning the competition so I could advance.
BLYTHE: I love that! That is an incredible mindset. It’s not, “Oh, I hope I do well.” It’s, “I decided that I am going to win. That I am going to be in first place, because…” [LAUGHS] “I’ve worked too hard, dammit!” [LAUGHS]
ELISE: Right! [LAUGHS] Exactly! I remember doing so much mental training just for that mindset. Even to this day, however many years later, and just in normal life I often think about that, about how I was capable of doing that, and just getting there mentally. And then the performance year and what I did mentally. I mean it’s a pretty – it’s really interesting how [inaudible] your mind is.
BLYTHE: Absolutely. You know, I want to talk about the Olympic qualification process a little bit, but I also wanted to talk about the 1999 World Championships in Tianjin, because that was the first time really that we sort of saw you on the international stage. And you did the best really, out of all of the Americans, the U.S. finished sixth as a team, and they got to qualify a team to the Olympics and all that. And at that time the U.S. was undergoing a very monumental shift, we’ll put it that way. How did you and your teammates feel about the outcome of that World Championships, and everything that happened afterwards?
ELISE: Um, gosh it’s hard for me to remember. I don’t think we felt like we did well. And I, I suppose in a way I did “the best,” but in comparison to the years prior, we did not do well at all. So, I guess in comparison, everybody knew that it was way underachieved, I suppose. Yeah, I mean for me personally, it was obviously my first worlds and there was a lot of, like you said, shifting going on, and I just remember sort of clinging to Kelli and the fact that…just I didn’t know what to expect. It was all very overwhelming and of course we had these expectations. Things were happening. Injuries were happening; it was just a lot of stuff. So, I just remember clinging to Kelli, you know, “Get me through this,” and she certainly did. And she was wonderful keeping me focused, and again, reading me as an individual even amongst all of the other stuff that was going on, and knowing what I needed. And I just listened to her, and felt like I just tried to do my job. But we all know that everybody else was very aware that we underachieved, and it sort of made everybody hit the panic button, and then change absolutely everything. [LAUGHS] So, yeah, but I don’t remember too many other details really, other than just the general feeling of it being pretty hard, and we were all pretty aware that the federation, I guess if you want to say, didn’t think too highly of us. So, I mean we all knew that and felt that, so that didn’t feel too good.
BLYTHE: What did you think – with the experience of hindsight and being able to look back on that time as an adult, what do you think accounted for the Magnificent 7, that generation and they had just great results, and then there was this kind of dip. The Mag 7 generation retired, went to college, went on to pursue other things, and so all of the sudden you had a lot of new people in the United States competing for the United States as seniors and maybe without the experience. But why do you think that the results, sort of, were lowered, I guess is what I want to ask?
ELISE: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m pretty good at staying in my own bubble. So, I’m pretty good about staying close with Kelli, and staying close with my teammates, and understanding I was there to do a job, and taking care of myself so I could do that job. And that’s pretty much all I thought about. Because I didn’t know the elite scene well enough, I didn’t know how everything worked well enough to sort of know what was going on. Like I said, we were aware how everybody felt about us, in that we didn’t do as well as the past competitors for the United States. We all knew that, but I didn’t really know why. I just, sort of, was there to do my job, and I was pretty good at staying in that bubble to do so. So, I don’t really know.
BLYTHE: How were you made aware of how the federation felt, as you said? Because if you were in your own bubble, then you were in your own bubble, but at the same time there was this idea in your head that USA Gymnastics maybe wasn’t too pleased about the results that were being put out.
ELISE: I guess it was more so afterwards, when all the big shifting happened. I mean, you’re traveling with a group of people, and you hear things – you hear things, and you overhear things, and rumors start. I mean, you know how that goes.
BLYTHE: Oh, yeah.
ELISE: So, we would hear a lot of things, sort of, through the rumor mill. I don’t even know how we found out, but it was, “Oh, did you hear this?” you know, amongst us girls, and I don’t know how that all started, or who heard what. So like I said, I hate that stuff, because I tended to hear it and just try to do my own thing. So even though I was in my own bubble, as I say and trying to just do what I do, that stuff’s there. It’s around you, you hear it whether you want to or not. Um, so I think it was more of that, like whispers in the background, things that were being said around us that we would overhear, things like that.
BLYTHE: I see. And so, you get home from the ’99 Worlds, and then one day there’s this announcement, you know. They’re going to form a National Team Coordinator position, Bela Karolyi is going to have it, they’re going to do what they can to get the team ready to defend that gold medal in 2000. How did you find out about this, and how did it change your training, if it changed your training?
ELISE: Kelli sitting us all down, a group of like eight of us, and telling us what was going to happen in the upcoming year. I didn’t really know what it all meant, or how it was going to affect things because Kelli sat us down, tell what was going on, how it was going go with the monthly camps, but she said, “You know, we’re going to stick to our training regimen. Even though this is all happening, we’re just going to keep doing what we do in the gym.” And that’s sort of all I needed to hear, because like I said, I trusted Kelli with everything. So, if that’s what she was saying to me and that’s how she was going to run things, that’s how it was going to go. So, in my mind, we were just going to keep doing us with these little monthly trips, I suppose. But at the time I didn’t really know how I’d feel, I didn’t really know how, I guess in a sense, draining it was. You don’t know, you hear about something that’s going to happen, you don’t know how you’re going to feel until you go through it. So at the time it was like, “Okay, this is happening, but Kelli’s saying we’re just going to keep doing our thing.” I didn’t really know what to expect, I just trusted Kelli and that was pretty much all I worried about at the time. But she definitely sat us down and sort of told us, “This is what’s going on, but this is how we’re going to handle it.”
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BLYTHE: Ok, so let’s see here. We were talking about the 2000 Olympic cycle, I think. Actually in the interim, Jess and I were chatting about Dominique Dawes and I was wondering, when after ’96 did she return to the gym, and what was it like to have her as a training partner? Can you talk about that a little bit?
ELISE: I have the funniest memories of her returning. She – I think it was like a year out or something that did not seem like a lot of time at all.
ELISE: And she started coming in on her own, and we practiced in the morning and the evening, and she would come in sometime in the afternoon, like totally by herself, not even with Kelli I don’t think, for a while. And she would train in sweats and stuff, just because she had turned into a normal person. She took her time getting back in shape, just totally by herself. And then I think it came to a point where Kelli was like, “Ok so, you’re either going to train with us or not.” [LAUGHS] So, then she started training with us. And I mean, Dawes is just ridiculously talented and such an incredible gymnast. She certainly had the rough patches; she had taken a lot of time off. But with Kelli it’s like, “This is the way it’s going to be, so this is what you have to do.” So, she just sort of jumped in and had her ups and downs, but was expected to do everything that we were. Dominique is probably one of the funniest people I know. She has an amazing sense of humor, like a really witty, quick, sarcastic type of humor that is just hilarious. So, her and I became very, very close. We helped each other through a lot just with inside jokes, and humor, and being sarcastic, and we really, really helped each other, just being like that. So yes, I was very thankful to have her because she kept… she kept things very fun. We worked really hard and we both certainly had our ups and downs, but we helped each other quite a bit. So I was very thankful to have her come back to endure that with. [LAUGHS]
BLYTHE: One thing I also wanted to ask you about was the double-double layout off of bars. Can you tell me about, well first training that and learning that? I assume you were aware that that was a dismount that no woman had ever done up to that point. Can you talk about the process of deciding to do for it in the competition, and just everything that surrounded that?
ELISE: Yeah, it was similar to the toe-on toe-off Tkatchev, and also similar to the toe-on toe-off Tkatchev Tkatchev, we just sort of played. I was in the pit and the full was really easy for me and so we tried, I think we tried a 1 ½ first, I don’t know maybe I just pulled it.
ELISE: Yeah, I was pretty, like, “Hey, you want to try this?” “Yeah!” I was pretty bold in that way. And I knew where I was in the air, super precisely in that dismount, I mean with in the full. So, I knew – I knew I just had to tap harder, kick harder, and pull harder, and it would sort of go. So, it was just in the foam, and we played. And then once I did it a few times, I really just could feel how to do it. Yeah, it was so fun and so thrilling to go over and do it on the real surface landing for the first time, because I really, really knew where I was. And same with the toe-on toe-off right into the Tkachev, I mean we would play into a giant and then Kelli and I would kind of look at each other and I’m like, “Yeah, I can totally do it.” Like, I could feel like I had enough swing, I could feel where the tap was, I could feel when I was far enough but not too far out of the toe-on toe-off Tkatchev. So yeah, a lot of those skills just sort of developed just based on her having the idea, and me being up for it and being a little bit bold and trying it, and being aware of where I was in space, and yeah, just going for it.
BLYTHE: I see. Did you try anything else that you never showed in competition? Were you playing with anything else around the time of the Olympics?
ELISE: No, I don’t think so. [LAUGHS] I think I put in everything that I was playing with. Yeah, we decided to do the double-double dismount in the Olympics obviously because we wanted it named after me. We had to save it because for team competition the full was just cleaner and I knew I could stick it. And then for individual we decided to do it, I mean especially because vault had gone the way it had. We were both pretty much – or I was pretty much like, “Might as well throw it in” because I kind of thought my meet was over. But, yeah for team that’s why we just did the full, because I knew I could stick it and it was clean and stuff. But I practiced it a lot on real surface, not too often in the routine actually, but by itself on real surface, enough to know I could land it.
BLYTHE: In the all-around final, which was just a debacle for numerous reasons in Sydney, how should that have been handled, according to you? You know, with the vault being set at the wrong height and everything?
ELISE: Yeah. I think the fairest thing that could have happened would be to re-do the meet, because anybody who knows anything about gymnastics knows how much of a mental game it is. So…you’re at the Olympics and you have a goal of medaling in the all-around and you fall on your very first event. I mean it’s heartbreaking, and I felt like I was done. I felt like there was no way I could reach my goals by that point, and I could not for the life of me pick myself back up. I felt so beat up, going into that competition in the first place, with my shoulder injury—I mean, my shoulder hurt beyond words, and coming into the team location I hardly knew if I could hold onto the bar without it dislocating, and got through that, and it just progressively got more sore and it hurt more and I progressively got more tired and beat up in general and this is a very normal cycle in the Olympics, so much competition and train, but it just took everything in my power to get myself up to a place that I felt like I could have a great meet. I mean, when I look back at how hard it was, there’s nothing comparatively I could even describe because it was so hard for me get pumped up, but I did, and coming into the competition I was ready to go. I felt confident, I felt good, and from all of that confidence and energy that I had somehow dug up inside of me, to fall on my first event…it was when you pop a balloon, instantly it was gone. And so in order to have a successful competition after that, it just seemed impossible to me. And have you ever heard of letting an athlete redo the event…because “Oh, you can go back to the event at the end and do it over.” It’s just—you’re in an all-around competition when all four events are placing you somewhere. It’s the cumulation of all those events, so the only fair way, to me, would have been to start it all over. And I don’t know how they could have done that, or when they could have done that, but to do it again seems like joke to me. I could hardly even believe. And we had a choice. It was very, very unreal.
BLYTHE: Yeah. My favorite quote that came out of all of the press rehashing of that was some official was interviewed and the reporter asked, have you ever heard of this happening? Ever? At nationals or anything? And the official goes, Not even at the state level. It was just so unthinkable.
ELISE: Yeah. Right, right. Not even at the state level. And here it is, happening at the biggest competition in the world. Yeah. Unreal.
BLYTHE: And for you also, it wasn’t just the fall when you were doing the DTY in the all-around final. We also saw the really gnarly when you got lost in the air and landed on your back, and Kelli sitting there cringing, and you’re there saying no, it’s ok, it’s ok. But did you have an inclination after that vault that something feels off, something feels wrong.
ELISE: Yeah, you know, I recently watched that video. Maybe in the last two years. And I had never watched any footage of any of the games, and then I think it was during an interview and they played it for me and it was the first time I had ever seen it, and I think gnarly is an appropriate word, my gosh. Yeah, that whole warm up, yeah. It was evident that something was very off, but I had absolutely no idea what it was, and Kelli was asking me what it was, and she was saying, come on, get it together, because she maybe thought it was just nerves. I thought it was just nerves. I mean, equipment failure was just not even anywhere in the process of my brain, whatsoever.
ELISE: So yeah, I knew something was wrong for sure. But the equipment being wrong? No. I just instantly blamed it on me, that something was going on with me technically that I couldn’t figure out, and in the competition I had no idea what to do because my warm ups had gone as they had, and I decided I would run harder and go harder because I didn’t know what else to do, and I safely landed on my feet. But in nowhere in my mind did I ever think it was that.
BLYTHE: No, it was completely unbelievable. Just sort of the whole Olympics in that vein. Now, can you tell us about the shoulder injury? Because everybody who was watching saw the floor routine. You go up, in team prelims, and then the first pass it’s alright, it’s nice, and then the rest of the routine is just kind of weird and tentative, almost very tentative, and the announcers are saying something’s wrong, but we don’t know what, and you come off the floor and the first thing Kelli says to you is, Are you ok? And it was just, it must have been surreal to live through that. Can you take us through that and just, what happened?
ELISE: Yeah, you know, I hardly remember actually doing that floor routine, because the whole time I was thinking I can’t feel my arm. So it dislocated, it came out of the socket and back in as I was punching my front, triple full punch front, so into my punch front. And you know, I popped it right on my toes after that move, and I had like zero strength and zero feeling in that arm. And I was thinking, I’m in the middle of my floor routine at the Olympic games, there’s no way I can come off, so I was just doing my dance sort of autopilot, just sort of thinking, I hope the feeling in my arm comes back. And my whole second line, that’s all that I’m doing in that, it was strictly autopilot, and that’s probably why it looks so weird, because my brain was thinking, what am I going to do with this arm? Because I couldn’t lift it, I couldn’t…you know. So I’m standing for my second pass, and I’m like, here I go. I’m standing here and I’m certainly not going to stop. So again, by sheer will and force, I suppose, I got my body though that pass and that’s why I flew out of bounds and it was kind of crazy looking, and after that, I at least had the strength back in my arm. I could at least feel it. I mean, from shoulder all the way down to my fingertips was numb during half of my floor routine. And it was fading. So after four, I thought I could finish the meet, I could vault off the horse, and it hurt, but sheer adrenaline it didn’t hurt that bad. At least I could feel it again. It wasn’t until the next day it was bad.
BLYTHE: Had that ever happened to you before? Did you have shoulder problems?
ELISE: No, no, no. I had very flexible shoulders, but nothing in that capacity, no.
BLYTHE: I see. And after Olympics, you told reporters that your Olympic experience was not everything you had hoped for, but you felt like you had learned a lot. And what did you take from that experience, that you took forth going forward into life or anything like that? I mean, it was just so surreal, that Olympic games in gymnastics—it was something else.
ELISE: Yeah, yeah. And all of us didn’t know what to say at the end. We don’t know what to say, we didn’t know what we could say. We were young, we were—had all of these people watching us, and I love Jamie Dantzscher so much because as long as I’ve known her, she’s always said what’s on her mind. And she was the only who really just said what she was thinking about what was going on, and everybody else was too scared—I was too scared, speaking for myself. So of course I said, it wasn’t everything I hoped it would be, but it was horrible! There was nothing good about it, it was horrible! And I suppose now, looking back, what I learned is that experiences are what they are. They’re just that. They’re experiences. And in a lot of ways, how I’ve made my life take form—I wouldn’t have changed anything in my life for my experience at Michigan. And if we would have medaled or if I would have medaled, I most likely would not have done gymnastics in college. So I’m a huge believer in that things happened in the way they’re supposed to, and so that was my path. It was horrible and hard and heartbreaking and took me years to find a peace inside, and having that whole experience, looking back, that is the way it was supposed to happen. But it was hard, and everybody moved on so quickly. I mean, Jamie, Kristen and I, we shot off to college as fast as we could, and Amy and Dawes, they shot off to their normal lives as fast as they could, and Tash kept training, but everybody just moved on as fast as possible and USAG moved on as fast as they could. And it wasn’t until we got the medal, actually, and all of us looked at each other and we were like, holy cow, how did you feel about that whole experience and what did you feel like after? Because nobody talked about it, we all just moved forward. And it was pretty remarkable to talk to everybody ten years later about what they felt. And every time Kristen, Jamie and I saw each other at college competitions, we were just having so much fun and so happy to be in love with gymnastics again, there was no way were talking about the Olympics.
ELISE: Yeah. So it took me a couple of years to find some peace within myself about it. And I contemplated comebacks, I contemplated coming back and making team and just throwing up my arms and saying I wasn’t going just to sort of spite them. I had a lot of ideas, but the more I sort of settled into my life in college and having fun doing gymnastics and doing a sport that I had done since I was six the less I was thinking about any of my ideas about a comeback.
BLYTHE: I see. And does this idea of throwing up your arms and saying, No, I’m not going to Michigan, forget it—that was sort of a passing thing?
ELISE: Yeah. My whole freshman year and into my sophomore year of college, I really thought about trying to come back, because I didn’t want my Olympic experience to be like that. I thought I had business to take care of. And I really did consider training again and maybe trying elite again, and I was still very angry at that point, and I thought if I got to a point where, back on the elite team when they really needed me, and I could be like, never mind. I don’t think I will compete elite for you. Again, I was just so very angry at that point, and once again, my happiness in my new life just trumped all of that, and so I forgot about it for a couple of years. Excuse me.
BLYTHE: So how did your Michigan coaches – so in this era, it would have been Bev Plocki and Joanne, right?
BLYTHE: How did they deal about this with you? On one hand, they’ve got this Olympian whose skill level is out of this world, and on the other hand, they’ve got this young lady who’s had a very bad experience in elite gymnastics, and I can imagine at 18, you were feeling damaged and vulnerable and everything you had worked for, it didn’t work out, and how did they handle that with you? And how did they help you move forward?
ELISE: Oh my gosh, I am so thankful for them. They were just patient, I think is the proper word. They just—you know, cause I took a few months off, I didn’t come to school until January so I took some time literally off, and then joined Michigan’s team right when they started competing. And they let me take that time off and join with the team in January because they knew I needed rest and needed to heal. But like you said, when I came to school, I was still very damaged emotionally and they were just so patient. They just made sure that I knew that I had coaches and teammates around me who loved me for me, Elise the person, sort of, not Elise the gymnast. And they just created this really warm open environment for me, where it was ok to mess up, it was ok to not be the Olympic gymnast, sort of transform into the college gymnast. It was just a very warm, loving environment, and a very patient one. And I went through up and downs, “I don’t know if I can do this for four years,” and sort of emotional baggage from Sydney, but they really just supported me and let me go through it. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t go through it, they didn’t tell me to be a certain way or act a certain way, they let me be. And just really supported me through it and let me go through it until I came out the other end.
BLYTHE: I see. And at the end of that road, at the 2005 NCAA Championships, there’s some footage of your mom crying in the stands as you are performing. What did your parents think of your gymnastics career and the Olympics and NCAA and just everything that you have accomplished and everything that you did? It can’t have been easy on them, either.
ELISE: Oh my gosh, yeah. Ugh I get teary-eyed just thinking about them. They just really kept- in regards to training, in regards to my goals, Kelli’s goals, Kelli’s plan, they really took a backseat to it. So it was up to Kelli and I. And I never ever ever felt any pressure or any, “You have to do this, these are our goals too,” never any of that. And though they took a backseat in the gymnastics regard, they sacrificed so much. I mean like any elite gymnasts’ parent. I mean my brother sacrificed, they sacrificed, all for these dreams of mine. I mean that is just- there are no words for it. So yeah I think I’ve seen that clip of my mom who’s bawling, and I think it was wonderful for them to see me have four more years of gymnastics where I just had so much fun. And yeah I was very successful in college but that really wasn’t my goal in college. That wasn’t why I did college gymnastics. It’s because I love the sport and it was fun and I was good at it and I felt great doing it and I love to perform. And they saw that sort of rebirth in me throughout my college career, so i think a lot of their emotion in that was just that I was- ended on such a wonderful note. Because just as hard as it was on me in Sydney, it was perhaps harder on them. Seeing your daughter have to go through that then have to endure sort of the aftermath of it. So yeah.
BLYTHE: If you had a daughter yourself, Elise, would you want her to be a gymnast?
ELISE: [LAUGHS] No. [LAUGHS]
ELISE: [LAUGHS] And you know what, and everybody says, “Well Elise what if she’s talented and she loves it,” and everything that I was when I was little. How could my mom and dad pull me out of something that I love doing you know? And I don’t know if I could either, but my first inclination is no. And maybe it’s just no to the elite scene. I mean I think gymnastics is a wonderful sport and I think it teaches you things- teaches you life things. i use so much of what I learned in gymnastics to this day that I’m so thankful for, but I also think athletics in general can do that. I wouldn’t want my daughter to go through the politics and the stressors of the elite world. I don’t think I would want to have her go through that.
BLYTHE: I see. And today the national team system looks different than it did in the year 2000. What are your thoughts on it and the way that it’s run and the things they’ve been able to accomplish? Because it seems like they have been able to accomplish some really great things.
ELISE: Yeah sure. You know I don’t have very many opinions on it because I haven’t really stayed in the loop too much. My own experience with Marta was always that she was very fair. She was very fair in Sydney with all of us. I mean she’s very tough but she’s very fair. And she did listen to us. So the fact that she is in charge now I think I could see why a lot of positive things have happened. And I asked Kelli her opinion and I know she thinks very highly of how things have changed and just the fact that she thinks highly of the way things have changed makes me think highly of them as well. Just because I know Kelli knows what’s right. But in regards for the details I don’t really know because I haven’t really put a lot of thought into it, by choice. [LAUGHS]
BLYTHE: [LAUGHS] Completely understandable. And so after your NCAA career ended can you just take us through the next few years of what you did next before coming to the University of Washington?
ELISE: Sure. So after school I ran off with the circus
ELISE: I went off with Cirque du Soleil and I just love performing, it’s just my passion. So I didn’t want to be done. I knew I wanted to be done with gymnastics and obviously my body said [LAUGHS] “It’s time at 22 or 23”
ELISE: So I just wanted to find another outlet and I was very aware of who Cirque was. And I hadn’t really seen any shows but just sort of knew of them. And so I sent in an audition tape and I was lucky enough to have somewhat of a name still so they knew who I was and knew of my success in college so I actually got in pretty easily. Yeah and it was a phenomenal experience with just learning something so new. I mean- you think that my gymnastics would translate really easily into the acts they had me do, but- and certainly I could do it because I was a gymnast, but the techniques of it were very foreign and very new and it was so exhilarating just to learn something brand new. And then there is absolutely no words for the way you feel when you’re out on stage every night performing. The feeling is phenomenal. So yeah I moved to Vegas and I was there for just over two years I guess. Spent time in Montreal before training for the act then moved out there. Yeah and just sort of it came to an end, I just sort of felt like it was time to move on and I had my fill of Las Vegas [LAUGHS]…
ELISE: …to live amongst the normal people again.
ELISE: So I just sort of felt like that chapter was closing but it was a great transition out of gymnastics and into something brand new but still performing and still athletic and I just had a ball.
BLYTHE: And what show were you with in Cirque in Las Vegas?
ELISE: I was in O, that’s what I was originally trained for. But I was in O for about a year and a half, and then after O I got a contract with Love. And I did some trampoline kind of aerial harness kind of work that I was just minimally trained for but I sort of just transitioned over there. Then I was in Love for about a year as well.
BLYTHE: And so then you decided- did you feel like you were bit by the coaching bug or was it an opportunity that arose?
ELISE: It was an opportunity that literally fell in my lap. I actually didn’t think I wanted to coach, just because I had spent so much of my life in the gym and doing gymnastics and I just felt that there were so many other things that I’d like to explore. So after Vegas I moved home to Maryland and was just doing choreography, commentating and sort of things within gymnastics. And a little bit of coaching as well at a local club, which was wonderful. I was surrounded by wonderful people and young gymnasts that I suppose bit me a little bit when I was there. And then Joanne- literally I got a phone call from Joanne, she asked me what I thought, and I was like, “Oh thank you so much for thinking of me, I just don’t think that this is something I want to pursue. And I’m in Maryland, and my family’s in Maryland, and Seattle is all the way across the country.” [LAUGHS] So she said, “Ok great.” You know and we hung up and then I kind of had a knot in my stomach for the rest of the day. Like, I’ll be darned. So I called her back
ELISE: And I said, “What do you think about me coming out and at least interviewing and you can hear what I have to say and I can at least see the university.” And so we agreed upon that. And went out and fell in love with Seattle and I just adore Jo. And honestly just went for it. I just went for it. I’m a really big feeling kind of person and it just felt like that’s what my next move was. And I really don’t have any other signs other than you know I just felt like that’s what I was supposed to do. So I [LAUGHS] packed up and moved to Seattle. Yeah and it’s so interesting because coaching these girls, especially at the age that they are, I just love it. And I kind of laugh about it because [LAUGHS] who would’ve guessed?
BLYTHE: You have been credited for transforming the UW gymnasts into some of the most consistent beam workers in the country.
ELISE: Oh wow thank you! [LAUGHS]
BLYTHE: We want to know what magical instructions you’ve been giving them.
ELISE: Wow magical advice?
BLYTHE: [LAUGHS] Or are you getting up there and demonstrating yourself?
ELISE: Oh my gosh no [LAUGHS]
ELISE: It’s funny because in my brain I feel like I still could but my body is like, “There is now way.” [LAUGHS]
ELISE: One time I got up on the beam and tried to do a double turn and I got so lost [LAUGHS]. Anyway I have very very high expectations and I think when I was hired the girls were afraid that my expectations would be too high. Oh this Olympian now turned coach is going to come work with us and she’s going to have these “Olympic expectations.” And I’m like you know what, yeah! I am!
ELISE: So let’s go! And I just- I kept my expectations so high because I see this talent in them and I’m like you can do beam/any of your events at this level, you just have to dig out. So I’ve always had very high expectations. And secondly, just really working on them with their mental game. A lot of- I don’t think a lot of club gymnasts have had the experience just in mental training, and that’s something that I took very very seriously as a gymnast and worked very hard at. So I feel like I have a lot of tools in my tool bag in that regard. Just sort of tricks of the trade that I can teach them, just in regards to mental talk, affirmation, talking yourself through your beam routine, cue words, things like that that I did as a gymnast. I just taught them how to do it. And just really staying on them to do it. I would say those two things are what has made them so successful this year.
BLYTHE: What do you want the Washington gymnasts to take away from gymnastics when they’re all done?
ELISE: I want them to just be happy in their experience. So whether they hold success in happiness, whether they hold hard work in that happiness, whatever that means to them. I just want them to look back on their experience at college and think that it was some of the best years of their lives. And I always tell them when I’m working them really hard, “You won’t remember the hard- you won’t remember this intense hard work, you’ll remember how you feel when you complete this amazing routine.” And they kind of look at me and think, “You’re just trying to get me through this assignment.” [LAUGHS] But I think later when they look back they realize it’s true. And to just not be afraid of hard work. The word “hard” is in front of “work” for a reason. But it’s just- the fruits you can bear from it are immense. So I push them to- I push them harder than they think that they can go. And then they look at me and their eyes say, “Wow I didn’t know I could do that.” And that is incredibly rewarding for me. Because I mean they’re going to go on after life in their careers and their relationships and their lives and all of it at some point is going to have to have hard work in there. So I just hope that they don’t shy away from it and that they truly can look back and that they gave it all they had, they worked hard, but most importantly they had a wonderful four years.
BLYTHE: Just like their coach
BLYTHE: I just want to say it has been absolutely great to be able to talk to you for this hour, and thank you so much for taking all of the time that you did.
ELISE: Oh my pleasure, and thank you for your poignant questions.
BLYTHE: [LAUGHS] It’s our pleasure
ELISE: Yeah some interviews you get don’t really get in there but it’s nice- like you said it’s nice to talk about gymnastics so freely. So thank you.
[SOUND BYTE] —
JESSICA: I want to thank Elise Ray for coming on the show and spending so much time talking to us and letting us gymnerd out and ask her all of our burning questions. And that’s going to do it for us this week. And we will see you next week, thank you so much for listening, and I guess we’re going to find out how many people actually listen all the way through the episode.
[[OUTRO MUSIC: “Moi Je Joue” by Brigitte Bardot]]
JESSICA: Ok so I have to ask you this. We can totally edit this out if you do not want to talk about this. So seriously, as a woman with the genes of my Italian grandmother…
JESSICA: [LAUGHS] You know where this is going, right?
ELISE: I think
JESSICA: Yes like I have had to wear- as a gymnast I had to wear two bras to gymnastics since eighth grade. And…
JESSICA: Right? like this is a serious issue for some of us. And I feel like you know sometimes I want to let the young gymnasts out there who may be facing the similar gravity issues that we’ve had to deal with in gymnastics, let them know how to deal with this a little bit, you know? So do you have any- we’ve also had a discussion, just to preface this, like this is not the first time we’ve talked about this on the show. Because there was who was talking about how- we were talking about someone who couldn’t do a double layout and why they couldn’t do the skill they did. And another gymnast once told me she tried her whole life to learn a double layout and could not. And finally her coach took her aside and was like, “You know, here’s the deal, you have all your body weight in your lower body, but so-and-so on the team has big boobs and that’s why she can flip over so fast.”
JESSICA: [LAUGHS] And she instantly felt better for the rest of her life. She was like, “Oh it’s not my fault! It’s the genes!”
ELISE: [LAUGHS] Oh my god
JESSICA: So do you have any words of advice? Any bras you can recommend?
ELISE: [LAUGHS] Well I think my biggest piece of advice is just get the proper sports bra. Because for young ladies like us, the T-back sports bras are just not the right ones. [LAUGHS] Because they just make- they just double the force because it’s just doubling what you have in one casing, right? You need to separate the force with proper wide straps and stuff. So yes, there is a proper sports bra out there and it needs to be worn by well-endowed females [LAUGHS].
[[OUTRO MUSIC CONT’D]]