U-M gymnast finally gets Olympic medal

Elise Ray was alone in her living room when she heard the news: She’s an Olympic medalist.

“We’re all thrilled, but it’s just wild that it’s a decade later,” says the University of Michigan alum, who was part of the women’s Olympic gymnastics team at the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia.

The International Olympic Committee, meeting in Dubai this week, made the decision Wednesday to strip the Chinese women of their team bronze medal from the 2000 games because one of the athletes did not meet age eligibility requirements. She was just 14 then, investigations have shown, and gymnasts had to have turned 16 in the Olympic year to compete.

As the fourth-place team there, the U.S. women move up to third, and Ray says that changes their place in history. “We were all really good gymnasts and we were just pushed under the rug because we didn’t come home with the hardware,” says Ray, now a coach and personal trainer in the Baltimore area. “We went through a lot of crap, for lack of a better word, and nobody really knows that.”

Ray, now 28, was one of the stars of that six-member U.S. team in Sydney. Considering it was the only U.S. women’s gymnastic team not to medal in the games between 1992 and 2008, the 2000 performance was considered a bitter failure. After what was considered a lackluster performance at the 1999 world championships, USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, named famed Romanian coach Bela Karolyi as a national coordinator, started holding training sessions at his ranch in Texas and changed selection procedures for who would make the team. Turmoil ensued among athletes and coaches.

“We went through a lot of things with the federation, a lot of political things. We were a little bit of a guinea pig team that went wrong,” Ray says. “Everything was a mess there. It took all of us a while to really get over it. Everybody hopes the Olympic Games will be the pinnacle of your career, but it really was pretty awful for us.”

After those games, Ray enrolled at the University of Michigan, competed for four seasons, and ended her career as the most-decorated Wolverine gymnast ever, with 14 All-American awards. As a freshman in 2001, she won the NCAA all-around title and then won the balance beam event in 2003 and the uneven bars 2004. She graduated with a degree in English.

“Michigan really healed me,” Ray says. “I was ready to hang up my leotard and throw in the towel and say, ‘I am done with this sport.’ For something that you worked for all your life, that’s kind of sad that I would have gone out on such a bitter note, but competing in college brought back my love for the sport, my love for competition, my love for the team.”

As she watched the Games in 2008, controversy again surrounded the ages of the Chinese athletes. “I didn’t really think past it. It’s always been kind of a joke, they look like they’re 10 anyway,” she says. “I didn’t really think, ‘I wonder what that means for us.’ I didn’t really correlate for me.”

Following the international outcry at those games and the widespread suspicion that athletes were underage, the International Gymnastics Federation dug a bit into the history of the Chinese team. That led to looking at allegations about the ages of the 2000 roster, and eventually the federation recommended to the IOC the Chinese team be stripped of the bronze medal. The recommendation was adopted Wednesday.

“I heard it from my coach first and then my phone just kept ringing and ringing,” Ray says. She has talked to some of her teammates and isn’t sure when they’ll actually get medals.

Having geopolitics play out on the balance beam is nothing new. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the media often cast Olympic women’s gymnastics as one of the biggest Cold War battlefields with the pixie athletes as powerful soldiers. With the exception of 1984, when they did not compete, the Soviet women won every team gold between 1952 and 1992, when they competed as the Unified Team. In the 1972 games, Soviet Olga Korbut’s smiles and tears melted a bit of the proverbial wall between East and West. In 1976, Romania’s Nadia Comaneci’s robotic perfection drew both admiration and pity for her regimented childhood: She was just 14 at the Montreal games.

In 1980, the U.S. athletes were injured in the collateral damage when President Jimmy Carter issued a boycott of the Moscow games in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then in 1984, it was the Soviets’ — and most of the Eastern bloc’s — turn to stay home while the rest of the world came to Los Angeles. There, American golden girl Mary Lou Retton vaulted her way to a gold medal, the Wheaties box and a permanent place in the American psyche.

In the 1990s, USSR split up and the Americans fought for higher podium places in the women’s events. Shannon Miller won five medals in 1992, and returned with the 1996 team, which was the first to win gold.

After that, much was expected of Ray and her teammates in 2000 but they lagged behind the well-organized Romanians, the powerhouse Russian team and the young Chinese — though no one knew just how young at the time.

“Getting the medal now,” Ray says, “sort of lets everybody know that, hey, we were a really good team.”

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