This story originally aired on October 27, 2018.
The expectations for Elise Ray Statz were enormous.
These days she is the head coach of the University of Washington women's gymnastics team. But back in 2000, she was captain of the USA Olympic team, and that team’s job was to win gold in Sydney, Australia.
“So ‘96 was the first women’s gymnastics team to ever win a gold medal for team [competition]. And it was just a massive accomplishment for gymnastics,” Elise said. “I think we were expected in 2000 to win gold, and that anything less wasn’t good enough.”
All elite sports come with pressure. In gymnastics it takes on a special character: The sport revolves around literal perfection -- as in, a perfect 10. (At least until the gymnastics governing body changed the rules in 2006). Elise Ray Statz -- just Elise Ray at the time -- was aiming for nothing less.
The trouble started in the warmups.
“I was landing almost in a scary way -- on my back, on my butt -- it was very unusual,” she said.
Elise put it down to nerves, but it messed with her head. She told herself she needed to run harder.
When the time came for the real vaults, she fell again. And just like that, her hopes for an all-around medal went splat.
“It was the most deflating feeling,” she said. “You know, you have yourself in this mental place of, I can medal. I can medal in this All-Around final. And then in your very first event you fall, and you know that all your medal contention is gone in the snap of a finger. It was really, really hard to finish that competition.”
Ray felt stunned, and baffled. It’s not like she had been falling in practice. And she wasn’t feeling any spring as she launched off the vaulting horse. She did her best to push it out of her mind as she went on to compete in bars, beam and floor.
A Rumbling In The Arena
The balance beam is one of Elise’s strongest events. And yet, coming off the vault disaster, she lost her focus. She landed badly and hit the floor again.
Meanwhile, something was amiss in the arena.
“I heard a really unusual kind of rumbling in the arena. And it was enough to pull me out of my mental game. I’m really, really focused in competition, but it was enough to make me look up out of my buble and ask my coach what was happening,” she recalled.
Officials had begun crowding around the vault horse, wearing furrowed brows. Elise’s coach explained what happened.
“They realized that the vault was set five centimeters too low.”
That kind of equipment malfunction in the Olympic games was unheard of. The TV commentators were gobsmacked. The gymnasts, bewildered.
And then the decision came down that anyone who had vaulted on the faulty horse would get another crack at it -- an unprecedented 5th event of Olympic All-Around competition.
‘It Was Too Late’
Elise got set for yet another pair of vaults, this time with the horse set at the correct height. She landed them, just as she had done almost every day in practice.
“There’s the repulsion off the table, set to the proper height. This is how it normally feels,” Elise recalls thinking. “And I made it. It was great, but it was too late.”
Getting a do-over on the vault didn’t take away Elise’s fall on the beam. She remained way out of medal contention, just wondering how the trajectory of her meet might have gone differently if the vault debacle hadn’t happened.
“You wonder what if,” she said. “And that’s a very difficult ‘what if’ to endure for the next couple of years.”
After that, Elise had her first break from gymnastics in many years.
“After the Olympics there was a part of me that thought I wanted to be done. … I didn’t know if I had the strength or the love for the sport.”
Better Late Than Never
The story does have a relatively happy ending. Two of them, actually.
For starters, Elise then enrolled in the University of Michigan, where she joined the gymnastics team and rediscovered her love for the sport.
“Collegiate competitions are so much fun. It’s team oriented, it’s high energy, it’s unlike anything that I had experienced,” she said.
And secondly: The USA women’s team had finished the 2000 Games in 4th place, heartbreakingly just shy of the medals.
Ten years passed. And then ….
“I get an email, and the email says ‘Congratulations, your team has been awarded the bronze medal for the 2000 Olympics!’ Because the Chinese team has been caught cheating,” she said.
“I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know if it was spam.”
It turns out the Chinese had been stripped of their team bronze medal because they had fielded underage gymnasts. Not long after, Elise reunited with her former teammates, and received her bronze medal.
It was a bittersweet turn of events.
“I would be lying if I said every time I held it I didn’t think it was the most amazing thing ever,” Elise said. “But I don’t know if it feels like mine.”
Elise says she built a shadow box for the medal and hung it on her wall. And then she quickly decided to take it down.
“Nope, I can’t look at it every day,” she realized. “So when it’s on the bookshelf. it’s in its little case that it came in.”
“It’s there if I’d like to look at it, and if I don’t, I don’t have to.”