On the day he died, the 36th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had prepared a speech in which the line "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other," was to appear. While Kennedy was never able to deliver that speech, his words have never found a truer home than in University of Michigan senior, Elise Ray. Long before she took to the competition floor in Ann Arbor, Ray was a proven leader in the world of competitive gymnastics. Her skill and years of competition may have earned her a place on the 2000 United States Olympic team, but her character and personality earned her the honor of being that team's captain. Having begun in the sport at the age of seven, the fifth year senior is nearing the end of her competitive gymnastics career. While the accolades that she has amassed over the years are impressive, the things she has learned and the people that have helped her along the way are what have made the most profound effect on Ray.
Instead of worrying about whether or not she would get along with her roommate or whether she chose the right meal plan, like most incoming freshmen, Ray was instead focused on competing on sport's grandest stage the summer before she began college. Having already won the 2000 United States National Championship and the all-around title at that year's Olympic Team Trials, Ray and her teammates were focused on repeating and recapturing the golden success their predecessors had experienced four years earlier. "The honor of representing the United States in front of the entire world just fills you with pride," Ray remembers.
In addition to competing as an individual, Ray was selected as the team's captain, only in part because the success she had experienced over the course of the year. "It meant a great deal to me, because I was chosen by my teammates," Ray recalls of her selection. "I was the one who would fire everyone up and cheer really loud during practice and if someone was having a bad day I would run over and influence them to change their attitude and get a different outlook."
The role of leader was one that came naturally to Ray. While the U.S. team failed to medal in Sydney, finishing fourth in the team competition, Ray's journey had just begun. As the Olympic Games overlapped with the start of the fall semester, Ray took time to recover and train before beginning her collegiate career in January. When she finally arrived in Ann Arbor, Ray knew that she was where she belonged. "I fell in love with Ann Arbor. And the team made me feel like I fit in immediately. Of course I was nervous about where I was going and what the dorms were like at first, but it only took me about a week or two to feel comfortable, because the girls just welcomed me with open arms."
Having missed much of the traditional bonding time with her new teammates, Ray knew that it was important for her to come in and prove that she was ready for the unique rigors of collegiate gymnastics. "It has always been very important to me to lead by example, both in competition as well as on the practice floor. That's what came so easy as a freshman, because of the high level of gymnastics that I had just competed at. I was coming into college academics as well as the competition season, which was very different than the season that I was used to."
Unlike the elite gymnastics circuit, where athletes prepare for four to five meets a year, in collegiate gymnastics, teams are competing nearly every weekend. During her freshman season, Ray more than proved that she was mentally and physically ready for the change in her schedule. In addition to earning a spot on two All-Big Ten and four All-America teams, Ray became the first Michigan gymnast to win an all-around national championship in school history, and only the second to win an individual title.
As Ray's familiarity with the program, team, and coaches began to grow, so did her leadership role; from a motivator who cheers as hard as she works, to a friend who helps her teammates on a personal level. "As I've gotten older, I have broadened that leadership from just being an example into forming relationships with my teammates and getting to know them and finding different ways to help them have a great experience in gymnastics and in college."
While her leadership role was forever changing, her performance remained impressively consistent. As a sophomore, Ray earned her first Big Ten championship and her second NCAA title, both on the beam. However, as she began preparing for her junior season in the fall of 2002 she sustained a shoulder injury that would eventually require arthroscopic surgery and, despite an effort to come back, would end her junior season before it even started. While the loss of an entire year was difficult for Ray to accept at first, soon she refocused her energy on finding a different way to contribute to her team, now as a friend and a coach. "I had to take some time to myself, because it was hard for me to swallow that I wasn't going to compete that year," Ray recalls. "But, once I was at peace with that idea, I just fell into a coaching/mentor role, so I could use all of the energy that I would have used in practice and competition, and tunnel it into my teammates. I would just kind of jump in and the coaches were very willing to listen to what I had to say. "
While she didn't add any more titles or honors to her resume that season, Ray did find something even more important; something that she will carry with her the rest of her life. "It was hard at first, but when I think back on it, it was a really good year for me. I never thought that I would want to coach, but that year really opened my eyes. I really liked coaching and I felt that I had a knack for it"
Ray readily admits that the ordeal of missing a season of competition and refocusing on the success of her teammates was a challenging and learning experience for her. That progression and realization could not have been possible without two people who have had enormous influence on Ray, not as a gymnast, but as a person. Elise's older brother Taylor is a first lieutenant in the United States Army, and is the single biggest role model in Elise's life. After a year and a half tour of duty in Iraq, Taylor is now back in the United States, but his experiences and character still inspire and motivate his little sister. "He is definitely one of my heroes. The kind of person that he is, is the type of person I want to be. When I look at him and when I am around him, that's just the person I want to be."
The influence of Taylor and her teammates, made Elise's decision to take a medical redshirt much easier, but when Ray rejoined her team competitively, she picked up right where she left off. In her fourth year at Michigan, Ray returned to earn her third national championship, this time on bars, three first team All-American honors, her first Academic All-Big Ten selection, and her second U-M Athletic Academic Achievement Award. Ray realizes that being a leader for her teammates extends beyond the competition floor. "Your character in the classroom and out of the gym is extremely important, especially at a school like Michigan. Here everybody knows the athletes. Being gymnasts, we stand out; you can basically spot a gymnast, because we're so little. The coaches stress character and academics, and we try to stress it for the freshman coming in as well."
Through the last 16 years of her life, Ray has known little outside of gymnastics, but now that her competitive career is quickly coming to an end, she intends to experience and appreciate every second she has left. Instead of focusing on concluding her career with another national championship, Ray is centered on enjoying the time she has left in the sport that she loves. "My number one goal for this year is to take care of my body, stay healthy, and really have fun. A lot of people are saying that it would be perfect if I won a national championship in my final year, but I'm not going to stress myself out thinking about it. I'm not going to put all my eggs in that basket. I just want to make sure that this year is a lot of fun for me, and I have great memories with my teammates."
While Ray might be focusing on more than just athletic achievement during her final year at Michigan, she still has a number of competitive goals to fulfill as well. The Wolverines are currently ranked second nationally and Ray has won seven individual titles this season, and she would love to finish her career by helping her school earn its first team national championship. "It has been a great honor to attend Michigan; it is an incredible university. The people that I have met and have been surrounded by over these years have been amazing. They are people that I will be friends with and have relationships with throughout my life."
While Elise Ray came to Michigan as a superstar in the world of gymnastics, that did not prevent her from growing as an athlete, and even more so as a leader. Ray has gained lifelong friendships with teammates and coaches, developed a passion for teaching the sport, and a better understanding of what it takes to be a productive leader. "Self-motivation and perseverance have been a very big part of my success. I've learned that when you have rocks in your path that you have to overcome, some times instead of pushing through the rocks, you just have to go around them or find a different way."