By Alex Coffey
“197” was written on the locker room wall.
It was posted around the gym – even in the University of Washington Coaching Offices.
This year, “197” was a number that could be seen virtually everywhere the school’s women’s gymnastics team – nicknamed the Gym Dawgs – practiced. For anyone else, it might seem arbitrary, but for the team that ended the season ranked eighth in the country, “197” carried a lot of weight.
“We had “197s” everywhere,” said University of Washington Head Coach Elise Ray. “I created a document – you could look at it and see all of our goals for the year. That was posted everywhere that the girls are. The season gets long, and we need that reminder. That was a really big goal for us; “197” is really hard. When I first said it out loud at the beginning of the season, the team said I was nuts.”
But a number that started as a laughable concept, quickly became the turning point the Gym Dawgs needed to prove to themselves that they could compete amongst the best teams in the country.
“It was very challenging for us,” Ray said in an interview with USA Gymnastics. “But when they reached their first 197 in February, people decided to buy in and stay committed. The most challenging part of coaching the Gym Dawgs was getting them to believe how good they are. Once they saw that our process was working, we continued succeeding.”
This was Ray’s first season as head coach of the Gym Dawgs, after joining the coaching staff in 2011 – first, as an assistant coach and, then, in 2015, as associate head coach. But the 2017 Pac 12 Gymnastics Coach of the Year said she initially turned down the offer, unsure if she was cut out for coaching.
“I never thought I would coach, so when (former) Head Coach Joanne Bowers called me for the job, I originally turned her down,” said Ray. “My family is all the way down in Maryland. And then for lots of different reasons, I came out to Washington and fell in love with the city (of Seattle). I took a leap of faith, and realized I really do love doing this.”
Even after she’d arrived at the University, Ray wasn’t one-hundred percent sold.
“When I first took the job as the assistant, I didn’t know how long I would be in the business. But every year, I became more attached to the girls and the role we have in their lives – falling more and more in love with that piece of it. And then as the years went by, I started to feel ready for head coaching and ready for that undertaking. It was serendipitous – Joanne was ready to retire just as I was ready to become head coach.”
So six years after her “leap of faith” with the team, Ray found herself at the helm of it.
“There was a lot of newness, at the beginning,” she said. “Even though I’d been there for six years, I’d recruited these girls and worked with them, I was in a new role. So, I expected us to be a new team.
“I told them, ‘Everything that you’re used to is going to be different.’ I told them to have that open mind and to buy into it. They really did that. They really respected the process and the newness of it all, and bought into all this new stuff that was happening. A big theme of our season was ‘It is going to be new, let’s do this together.’”
But embracing the new normal wouldn’t just be a challenge for the team. Ray herself admits that for a time, she wanted nothing to do with gymnastics. A member of Team USA who won a bronze medal after her performance in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, she found herself under immense pressure at a very young age.
But the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame member rekindled her love for the sport as a freshman at the University of Michigan, where she led the Wolverines to the Super Six finals and was a three-time NCAA national champion on the bars, beam and in the all-around.
“It was really different,” said Ray. “You are now doing gymnastics in a body of an 18-22 year old, you’re more mature, and that takes patience. In college, team is first, in elite gymnastics that’s not the case at all. That often causes a lot of anxiety and pressure for elite gymnasts. You’re now doing it for other girls that you love. When I was a freshman at Michigan, I didn’t know how to train in an environment that was free and loose. You have to go in with the idea that I’m up for change, growth, this is going to be different.”
Ray’s transition from elite gymnast to collegiate gymnast proved to be a critical asset for her as head coach. Her personal experiences have allowed her to better relate to her athletes, and in return, earn their trust.
“It’s so important to promote the idea of loving one another, loving oneself,” Ray said. “I went through a lot as an elite athlete, so I have a lot to share. I can relate on a lot of levels. I hope to be an example of it. We try to be a really caring, inclusive, loving, compassionate group, and the idea is to instill these values with when they graduate.”
Embracing a new team culture, the Gym Dawgs took off. At a time when women’s collegiate gymnastics is as competitive as it’s ever been, Ray led the team to a program-record eighth-ranked finish nationally, a whopping ten spots ahead of their projected ranking before the season began. Their trip to nationals alone was historic – the last time the Gym Dawgs advanced to the NCAAs was 1998. In April, they set an NCAA Championships program scoring record with a 196.5625 in Semifinal I and earned event totals of 49 or better in every event for the fifth time in the season.
But after a historic season, Ray doesn’t plan on lowering the bar any time soon.
“We celebrated a little bit, and then, it was back to work,” says Ray. “We need to work hard and upgrade our routines. Even now, I’m having to remind them that our new goals start now. That season is over, and we are on to the next.”