The Vault: Part 1

Elise Ray, America’s top gymnast, qualified for the 2000 Olympics with big dreams — but during the all-around final, high expectations clashed with reality and came crashing down. Literally.


Episode transcript

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): In gymnastics, there are two kinds of landings — ones you can spot and ones that are blind.

When doing a backflip, a gymnast can spot the ground before they land. They can see exactly where they want to go. But flipping forward results in a blind landing, because a gymnast can’t see the ground. They just have to trust: trust their training, trust their muscle memory, trust that if they leap at a certain height, twist at a certain moment, they’ll land on their feet.

When the landing’s blind, you can’t see where you’re going. You can’t see where you’ll end up.

I’ve been thinking about this concept, a blind landing, a lot lately, because it feels like the perfect metaphor for what happened with women’s gymnastics at the 2000 Olympics. And the one moment, the one competition, when having that trust was a really, really bad idea.

My name is Ari Saperstein and I am not a gymnast. I’m a journalist. And I’ve actually never ever covered gymnastics, never reported on it. Until a year ago, all I knew about it was, uh, you know, the perfect 10, and, uh, Simone Biles, and, uh … yeah. Basically just that.

But one day, while researching a story, I started reading about gymnastics at the 2000 Olympics and learned that, for lack of a better word, it was kind of a mess. Women’s gymnastics, to be exact, at these games, was just mired in controversies about things like banned substances —

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
The athletes committed a doping offense…

And falsified ages —

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
One of China’s gymnasts was only fourteen.
… a member of that team was underage at the time …

Those stories, they’ve gotten a lot of attention over the years. And, in the process, they overshadowed this other story. A story that’s been pretty buried. A story about gymnasts and trust — trust in authority, in the Olympics, in the rule book, in themselves, in blind landings. And when that trust backfires.

Now, really, to give any more details would be a huge spoiler for this podcast. But I want to let you know that this isn’t a story about abuse, as so many stories about gymnastics have been over the past few years. There’s been so much important reporting lately about the bad things that happen behind closed doors in gymnastics. And this is a story about a bad thing that happened televised, live, on the world’s biggest stage, right in front of our eyes.

MARIA OLARU: I told my coach I was sure, very sure that something is wrong.
LISA MASON: So many gymnasts we’re falling. It’s like, well, you can’t keep ignoring that there’s something wrong here. Something is not right.
SVETLANA KHORKINA: It was pain. Pain in my knees, and pain in my heart.
ALLANA SLATER: I guess I was in disbelief.
ELISE RAY: I think it’s a story that needs to be told.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Blind Landing, the untold story of one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history.

Episode One.

ELISE RAY: You just know it in your bones. Sometimes in competitions it just happens, and 2000 nationals for me was one that was very natural and it was just one of those competitions where everything fell into place.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): On July 29th, 2000, at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, Missouri, 18-year-old Elise Ray was about to compete at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. And what Elise knew in her bones was that this was going to be a very good day.

ELISE RAY: It’s, you know, how you walk into the arena, how you warm up. Everything just kind of clicks. And you’re nervous, of course. You’re terrified, of course. But it feels like you’re ready and you’re confident and you just know you’re going to hit.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And that is exactly what Elise did: perform hit after hit routine on the balance beam, uneven bars, and floor exercise. Going into the final event, Elise was in the lead. And…

ELISE RAY: It came down to the vault. And I knew that the championship was on the line.

KELLI HILL: I’ll never forget it. She knew she was close to winning the meet.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Kelli Hill, Elise’s coach. Kelli remembers the moment right before Elise was set to compete vault.

KELLI HILL: She had warmed up. And she starts pacing. She’s pacing in front of me, pacing. And she comes right over to me, looks — stands in front of me, looks at me, and says, “I want to double full.”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise had only ever done vaults with one twist or one and a half. But she’d been working on a more difficult vault with two twists … the double full.

KELLI HILL: And double fulls back then were — that was a big vault.

ELISE RAY: And I ask Kelli, “Can I do my Yurchenko double full?” It was the first — I had never competed it before, only trained it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): What Elise was saying was that she wanted to do one of the most difficult vaults in gymnastics for the first time, here, in the final moments of the US Championships, with everything on the line.

KELLI HILL: And I’m like, “Elise, we’ve been here a week. We haven’t warmed it up.”

ELISE RAY: And she looks at me and she’s like, “Are you going to hit it?”

KELLI HILL: And she goes, “I can double full.”

ELISE RAY: I just knew it.

KELLI HILL: I was like, okay, let’s go. I was a nervous wreck at that point but she was bound and determined. And you know what? When you have an athlete that says, “I want to do this, I can do this. I’m doing it,” you have to go with it. It’s just … “OK.”

[SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING]

ELISE RAY: And so I debuted my Yurchenko double full …

[SOUND OF RUNNING, THEN JUMPING OFF A SPRINGBOARD]

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): She spun through the air. One twist. A second twist!

ELISE RAY: And I made it.

[SOUND OF LANDING, CROWD CHEERING]

And it was like this moment. And the fact that Kelli trusted me to do it is insane. But it was a really special moment.

KELLI HILL: She double full-ed and it was an absolute highlight — the highlight of my coaching career, to watch her be so determined and want something and know she could do it and do it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise had won. She was now the U.S. national champion! And that meant Elise was a shoo-in to represent the U.S. at that year’s Olympic Games. And that meant there was just one more thing left on her gymnastics bucket list.

ELISE RAY: Any elite athlete, you dream of going to the Olympics. But because you’re an elite athlete, you don’t just dream of going to the Olympics — you dream of going to the Olympics and medaling. It’s the absolute pinnacle, right? It’s what everybody wants.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But Elise didn’t have her eye on just any medal — she wanted an all-around medal.

ELISE RAY: All-around is when you add up all four events — vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. And then you get an all-around score, so all four events matter for that all-around score.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The Olympic all-around title, it’s the top prize in gymnastics. And Elise? She had a real shot at walking away with a medal.

KELLI HILL: That’s what she wanted. That’s what she had dreamed for. That’s what she had trained for. I knew that if she went out and did her best job, she was a medal contender.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
The eyes of the world are on Sydney, Australia, as the Summer Olympics get underway …
… 2000 Summer Olympics …
… 2000 Olympics are officially underway in …
… Sydney, Australia …
… Televised to 3.7 billion people around the world ….
… A record 199 nations. More than 10,000 athletes …
… Welcome to the Sydney 2000 Games of the 27th Olympiad …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Women’s gymnastics is the most watched summer Olympic sport. So on September 21st, 2000, all eyes, around the globe, were on 36 of the world’s top gymnasts as they entered the Sydney SuperDome for the Olympic all-around final.

Kelli Hill remembers what it was like walking into the arena with Elise that day.

KELLI HILL: She was obviously nervous, but she was on her game. She was confident, she felt good going into it, and you could tell.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And her first event in the Olympic all-around final was … the vault. Yes, the same event where Elise sealed the U.S. national champion title.

Now, for those of you listening who don’t know anything about gymnastics, I want to tell you a little bit about the vault. First of all, vault is both a noun and a verb. The vault is a four-foot-high padded piece of metal that the gymnast pushes off of and flips over. Sometimes it’s also called the table or the horse. And the verb, to vault, it starts with an eighty-foot runway that the gymnast sprints down. And at the end of that runway, they jump onto a springboard and push off of the vault. According to Elise, this event, it’s all about timing, speed, and precision.

ELISE RAY: As a gymnast, you start on the opposite end of the vault.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): When the gymnast gets the green light from the judges, they start sprinting down the runway.

ELISE RAY: So you have a certain amount of steps. And a lot of gymnasts count their steps.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): It’s like a rocket launch, counting down the seconds before lift-off. But instead, the gymnast is counting down how many steps are left. 50 feet away from the table. 40 feet. 30 feet.

ELISE RAY: It’s very methodical.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): At the end of the runway, the gymnast jumps onto the springboard —

[SOUND OF JUMPING AND SPRINGING]

— and rebounds upwards.

ELISE RAY: And then you start, sort of, your entry into the table.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The gymnast pushes off the vault with their hands…

[SOUND OF AN IMPACT]

… using all that repulsion to lift high into the air — and in that second of weightlessness, they fit as many flips and twists as possible.

ELISE RAY: And land on the mats on the opposite side.

[SOUND OF LANDING]

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Feet on the springboard, hands on the vault, stick the landing.

ELISE RAY: One small step, you know, one inch is a really big difference. It completely plays a factor in your run and your hurdle and your entry.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise had every single one of these steps running through her mind as she got in the line for the warmup round on vault.

ELISE RAY: When you’re nervous, it’s physiologically different. Your run may be quicker, your steps may be smaller, and everything then is a ripple effect from there on out.

[SOUND OF DEEP BREATHING]

ELISE RAY: For me, I really had to work on using my breath to regulate my nerves so my run and everything would be very much the same as in practice.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise exhaled …

[SOUND OF EXHALATION]

… and started her run.

ELISE RAY: So I had gotten myself up, finally up to this point of, “Okay, I am ready, I am ready to tackle this competition, I feel really good.”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Her footsteps got faster.

KELLI HILL: She was ready to go. She was ready to take on the world.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Feet on the springboard. Elise leaped into the air. And then —

ELISE RAY: I basically landed on my back.

[SOUND OF GYMNAST FALLING ON A MAT AND SHOCKED GASPS]

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise fell. And this, this was not a typical fall. She crashed, which is the gymnastics word for when anything that can go wrong does. What happened is that her feet got on the springboard, but her hands, they missed the vault.

ELISE RAY: I mean, you feel a very distinct repulsion off the horse. So I had no repulsion off the horse. So I barely even touched my fingertips.

KELLI HILL: So on vault, you’re really jumping off of your arms, your hands. And you’re pushing so that it’s a rebound.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Without that repulsion? Without that push off the vault with her hands?

KELLI HILL: The timing is completely off — and a kid can’t do the vault if their timing’s off. It’s not there. They’re expecting the rebound, and there’s no rebound.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise flipped through the air at the wrong angle, the wrong speed, out of control. Instead of completing the complex twists she planned, Elise barely rotated and came crashing down, hard on the landing mat.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Had you had crashes that were that close before?

ELISE RAY: No, I’ve never landed anything like that in competition.

KELLI HILL: No, that was not normal. No part of that was normal.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] I mean, it is not dramatic to say that you were inches away from being seriously injured.

ELISE RAY: Yeah, you know, I can’t even … It’s hard for me to even say those words out loud.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): What neither of us are saying, what’s so hard to say out loud, is that this could have been life or death. Elise walked away unscathed — but if anything had been just a fraction more off, I mean, if Elise used any less power, if she rotated any slower, then her head and neck would have taken the full impact.

That’s why Elise couldn’t bring herself to watch the footage of the fall for years. And when she finally saw it for the first time, not that long ago …

ELISE RAY: I was pretty stunned at how close, Ari, kind of like you mentioned, it was. Just because the feeling of it is very different than it looks. And then I think I cried, which was probably healthy. But it was a pretty intense reaction watching it the first time.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): When Elise crashed, Kelli was just a few feet away. So Kelli saw Elise miss her hands on the vault, and in that moment, she jolted back, totally shocked. Like in a horror movie when something jumps out from the screen, and you just, you recoil, your whole body, totally frightened.

KELLI HILL: In the warm-up I was right there, yeah. And there’s … I couldn’t have helped her. I knew I couldn’t get in there quick enough. I mean —

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): [IN INTERVIEW] Truly, right before your eyes.

KELLI HILL: Yeah.

ELISE RAY: Her reaction — I mean, she’s terrified, right? I was thankful enough that I knew just to duck under, but it was a very scary thought.

KELLI HILL: At first I thought that, okay, it’s a wakeup call. She’s just realized where she’s at and she’s in all-around finals and she’s getting nervous. And then I started trying to figure out, okay, no. Her head’s in the game. I’m talking to her — she knows what she’s doing. But she’s not getting — okay, your feet are underneath of you. Cause I even said to her at one point, “Elise, technically, you look like you’re on. What do you feel?”

ELISE RAY: She was asking me what was wrong. I had no idea.

KELLI HILL: I did not understand.

ELISE RAY: We didn’t know what was happening. I blamed myself. I thought it was nerves, I thought my steps were off, maybe nerves, maybe adrenaline … something that I was doing.

KELLI HILL: Then I was trying to be very okay, not to get all frazzled. A lot of athletes will pick up on the nerves of the coach. And if I think something’s wrong and everything’s off, and then she’ll start doubting herself. And I didn’t want her to doubt herself because I was already doubting myself. I didn’t know. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to tell her.

ELISE RAY: And that’s — that’s your warmup! That’s all you get in order to prepare for your actual competition vaults. Because I crashed so bad in touch, in warmup, I do remember this, standing back there thinking, “Well, I don’t know. I’m just going to run really hard and safely get over the table.” Because I knew with enough power, you can complete your rotations in a sense. I just tried sheer power because I didn’t know what else to do.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): After the warmup round, Elise got back in line for her first official vault attempt with a new strategy — sheer power. And when she goes for it, Elise gets over the vault safely and lands on her feet, but then immediately loses her balance and falls backwards.

Better than a full-on crash, yeah, but not by much. Her second and final vault? It’s even worse. Elise lands on her butt. And the look on her face after that final fall, it said it all.

ELISE RAY: Because anybody that knows gymnastics knows that you fall in the Olympic Games, like, you’re done. That’s it. Game over.

KELLI HILL: She had never not made a vault. And I think it was like, “Are you okay?” I gave her a hug. What do you say to an athlete whose dreams are just gone in the blink of an eye?

ELISE RAY: I remember Kelli coming over to me and saying, like, “We have a competition. You have the rest of the competition to do.” Like, I was just completely defeated.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Remember, this is the all-around — so Elise still had three more events to compete.

KELLI HILL: And she knew she was out of the game at that point, and it was hard. I don’t know. I just more remember her sitting in the chair completely dejected with grips like, not even caring if she put ‘em on.

ELISE RAY: I mean, that bar routine, even, which was the next event was — I hardly remember it. My mental state at that point — oof, it was hard. It was really hard.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise Ray, U.S. national champion, America’s best shot at a medal in the most-watched Olympic event — she was in last place. Her Olympic hopes, and her elite gymnastics career, had effectively come to an end on the vault.

At this point you may be thinking, okay, everyone has a bad day. And falling? In gymnastics? Like, aren’t competitions usually decided by who sticks it and who stumbles?

And yeah, of course, gymnasts fall. But in all-around competitions at this level, gymnasts don’t usually fall on vault. While working on this podcast, I watched a lot of world and Olympic all-around competitions. And I can tell you that typically, the average number of falls on vault in the all-around is one. Usually, one person falls. Sometimes it’s more, and sometimes no one falls.

But this, this means that Elise, she really should’ve been the one, the only gymnast to fall on vault during the 2000 all-around.

But after Elise fell, one —

[SOUND OF FALLING]

By one —

[SOUND OF FALLING]

By one —

[SOUND OF FALLING]

By one —

[SOUND OF FALLING]

… other gymnasts fell on vault too.

KELLI HILL: It wasn’t just Elise. It was lots of athletes were crashing and burning on vault.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Not just two gymnasts, not three, not four, not five — eight. Eight gymnasts fell on vault. And that was just in the first half of the competition.

KELLI HILL: Do you see kids fall at that level? Yes, it happens. But not from that many kids all across the board. You rarely see top athletes … especially on vault …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Elise’s fall on vault during the all-around — it was just the start of a much bigger problem …

KELLI HILL: We knew something was wrong. Just nobody could seem to figure it out.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): On the next episode of Blind Landing, we’ll hear from the person who figured out what was wrong.

ALLANA SLATER: I think we were just all in shock, if I’m perfectly honest. Total shock that it happened.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s next time on Blind Landing.

CREDITS

Blind Landing is reported by me, Ari Saperstein — and produced by me, Christian Green, Myka Kielbon and Jessica Taylor Price. Special thanks to Ellen Weiss and Mia Zuckerkandel, and thanks to our interviewees for sharing their stories.