Hometown pride: Local gymnasts keep Arizona State program rooted in the Valley

ASU graduate student gymnast Gracie Reeves celebrates after successfully dismounting from the uneven bars Feb. 2 at the Maroon Monsoon Tri-Meet. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

PHOENIX – Earlier this season, at a gymnastics meet in Utah, ASU graduate student Gracie Reeves tugged on her teammate Kayla Lee for a last-minute pep talk before they were set to compete in the beam event.

“‘Look at this, like, we made it here together,” Reeves told Lee.

The Sun Devils teammates had competed together in gymnastics clubs since childhood en route to the collegiate stage, but a point of reflection in Salt Lake City put into perspective their local ties and the unique opportunity before them.

“And it was just, it was a really cool moment,” Lee said.

Reeves, a Phoenix native, and Lee, a Scottsdale native, are two of the team’s four homegrown athletes, along with junior Alex Theodorou (Phoenix) and senior Cienna Samiley (Chandler). Despite the sport’s strong presence in the Valley, the team’s current makeup is an outlier in recent memory. Since 2010, only 13 ASU gymnasts have hailed from the Phoenix metro area.

Recently, however, ASU coach Jay Santos has not had to look further than his own backyard, adding all four gymnasts in successive years – Reeves in 2020, Samiley in 2021, Theodorou in 2022 and Lee in 2023.

“They’re the hometown kids, so they’ve got the connection with their clubs, and their clubs show up,” Santos said. “They’ve all contributed in a whole lot of ways. Athletically, just support and leadership within our program, and then even the (athletic) department at large. They’ve done different leadership things, where they’re involved with the department and doing different community service events.”

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Arizona State’s women’s gymnastics program is perennially successful. It’s currently ranked No. 18 in the country, thanks in part to the Arizona quartet. They have won their last three meets, prevailing at Stanford and Arizona before returning home Friday to beat Washington. The Sun Devils travel this Friday to Corvallis, Oregon, where they aim for a fourth straight victory at No. 17 Oregon State.

Reeves, a graduate student from Phoenix, returned for her fifth year following the team’s loss last year at the NCAA Regional Finals. She was a standout gymnast right away, even as a freshman in 2020, and since then she has been a mainstay in the vault, bars and beam lineups. She’s still at the top of her game, having earned a season-best on beam with a 9.875 against No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Cal in the Feb. 2 Maroon Monsoon tri-meet.

Reeves trained at Arizona Sunrays in Phoenix and decided to stay in the area for college, based on her relationship with her family.

“At first, when I was younger, I was like, ‘I want to go out of state, I don’t want to stay in Arizona,’” she said. “But as the time came when I had to graduate high school, I started to realize maybe I don’t want to leave my family. I love Arizona so much, and ASU just felt like the right place. It felt like home.”

Theodorou has competed in every meet this season on vault, tying for the vault event title with a season-high 9.900 against Arizona. The junior trained at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, and like Reeves, she contributed right out of the gate as a freshman. She participated in every meet but one in 2022 and competed in the all-around twice.

Theodorou’s first instinct was also to go out of state, but she also changed her mind in favor of ASU. That decision has vastly improved her college experience.

“At first, when you think about college, your first thought is move out, get away, start a new journey,” she said. “But honestly, being able to be so close to my family and having that support system already built in was so nice and made the transition to college so much easier.”

Samiley, who trained at Gold Medal Gymnastics in Chandler, serves as the backbone of ASU’s bars lineup, having competed in every meet but one in the 2023 and 2024 seasons in that event. At first, she was committed to BYU and expected to go out of state to continue her gymnastics career, but graduating in 2020 during the peak of COVID changed her plan.

“I realized that I really wanted to be closer to my family and friends and my support system,” Samiley said. “I’m also really close to my younger sister, Seneca, who I now live with. She goes to ASU with me.

“I had a great relationship with Jay (Santos) already coming in, because I had known him from him coaching at camps and just recruiting trips. So I thought it would just make sense to go here since I already had that great relationship.”

ASU senior gymnast Cienna Samiley competes on the uneven bars in Arizona State’s home opener dual meet Jan. 8 against Central Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

ASU senior gymnast Cienna Samiley competes on the uneven bars in Arizona State’s home opener dual meet Jan. 8 against Central Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

Like Samiley, Lee, who trained at Arizona Sunrays, cited a sister as a reason for choosing Arizona State. Her older sister, Jenna, was a member of ASU’s cross country and track and field teams and recently graduated in December.

“Also, a big part of it was my community,” Lee said. “I’d felt so supported in the gymnastics community in Arizona growing up. It was a strong sense of family, whether it be my immediate family or just friends and family that I’ve developed through gymnastics.”

Not only have her relationships grown within the sport, Lee has as well. She regularly leads off the beam and floor lineups for ASU and recently took her first career event title at Denver with a 9.925 on beam.

For these four athletes, the hometown advantages were appealing, but so was the ASU gymnastics program itself. All of the gymnasts were familiar with Santos and his program not only through geographic proximity, but also through Santos’s involvement in the Phoenix community.

“Being the program in town, you’re trying to build as many relationships as you can with the local clubs and coaches that are producing at that level,” said Santos, a two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year. “We try to engage, whether it’s local camps, get out to their invitationals, show up. Obviously we’re in town, we can show up to their gyms and watch practices and be around and available and have a presence in continuing to build those relationships.”

For some, the local appeal begins long before college recruiting. Lee grew up attending ASU gymnastics meets with her club teammates and with her club coach, Pam Godward Evans, who competed as an ASU gymnast from 1977-80 and was the program’s first All-American. Lee said the 2019 Sun Devil Athletics Hall of Fame inductee “would always talk up ASU, and she loved the program.”

Kaitlin Harvey, an ASU gymnast from 2019 to 2021, trained at Gold Medal Gymnastics with Samiley and also advocated for the program. When Samiley was choosing a college program, Harvey’s friendship, mentorship and advice played a major role.

ASU junior gymnast Alex Theodorou competes on vault Feb. 2 at the Maroon Monsoon Tri-Meet. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

ASU junior gymnast Alex Theodorou competes on vault Feb. 2 at the Maroon Monsoon Tri-Meet. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

“(Kaitlin and I) actually went out to lunch right before I came (to ASU), and she told me all about the program, and how the team atmosphere is,” Samiley recalled. “So I think that that was really influential in my decision of coming here, just because I knew that it was going to be super fun.”

Desert Lights Gymnastics, where Theodorou trained, is co-owned by Lisa and John Spini. John coached the Arizona State gymnastics program for 34 years from 1981 to 2014, making him the longest-tenured coach in Sun Devil Athletics history until he was recently surpassed by tennis coach Sheila McInerney.

Theodorou said that John’s continued closeness with the ASU program “helped add to that reassurance of the family atmosphere and that (I’d) be well taken care of, because I knew there’s always someone looking out for me.”

Until 2019, when Reeves committed to the Sun Devils, no Arizona Sunrays gymnast had gone to ASU since Shaena Friedman in 2003. With Lee committing in 2022, two Sunrays gymnasts have gone to ASU in the last five years, and Reeves played a large role in Lee’s decision.

“I grew up in club with Gracie, and I knew how she trained in the gym, and I knew we trained well together,” Lee said. “It was that older-sister guidance that I got from her that I would be grateful to keep going in a collegiate setting, which I was able to do.”

“I remember when Jay was recruiting her, I would talk to Jay and I was like, ‘She’s such a hard worker,’” Reeves said of Lee. “I knew that she would fit so well in our program and with the team because of her work ethic.”

Growing up in the same area means there’s a certain level of familiarity with other gyms and gymnasts close by, even if they didn’t train at the same club. All four Arizona natives either knew each other or knew of each other long before they even considered joining the Sun Devils program.

“I actually went to camp with Gracie and we had roomed together,” Samiley explained. “I also went to camps with Alex. So we had known each other since we were like, 8 or 9?”

Reeves added, “It’s funny. I have videos from when I was super young, like 10, and Alex is in the background. We’re in the same group, doing the same stuff.”

ASU sophomore gymnast Kayla Lee competes in the floor exercise Feb 2 at the Maroon Monsoon Tri-Meet. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

ASU sophomore gymnast Kayla Lee competes in the floor exercise Feb 2 at the Maroon Monsoon Tri-Meet. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

Hailing from the Phoenix area has its perks when the majority of ASU gymnasts aren’t from the area. The local gymnasts take great pride in sharing their homes and lives with teammates. Reeves regularly takes her out-of-state teammates to her parents’ house or to her grandparents’ home located about 45 minutes away from Tempe.

“My (recruiting) class specifically, we have two girls from California, one girl from Canada and the other one’s from Texas,” Lee said. “So it’s been fun just kind of showing them the ropes a little bit. I’m like, ‘Let’s go for a hike or something,’ something that would kind of get them out of their comfort zone. And even them showing me what they used to do. I live with Kimmy (Smith, from California) and she always talks about how, if they’re bored, they drive to the beach. I’m like, ‘We have no beach, but we can go to Target.’”

Santos says the program recruits local gymnasts every year, but this year there were no new additions from Arizona. The 2024 ASU recruiting class of four includes gymnasts from Minnesota, Missouri, Florida and Arkansas.

However, the local gymnasts believe local recruiting is, and will continue to be, integral to the team’s success. It builds the home crowd, builds long-lasting relationships and keeps the team grounded.

“I think that’s really a huge part of our program. Not just us in the gym, but coming from when we’re in season, having girls in the stands that you grew up doing gymnastics with,” Lee said. “Coming from Arizona and being on the team brings in a sense of Arizona pride.”

Santos agreed with the gymnasts’ sentiments, reaffirming the program’s commitment to continuing their support of the Valley-to-ASU gymnastics connection.

“I think no matter what, whether they’re local kids or out-of-state kids, you’re just looking for the right fits,” Santos said. “We’re going to continue to get into the local gyms, continue to recruit Arizona, and hopefully we’ll be lucky enough to continue to find some of the right fits again with other athletes. You’re looking to find kids that, obviously they want this experience, right?

“They want what ASU has to offer, what ASU athletics and our gymnastics program has to offer, and hopefully that continues.”

Grace Del Pizzo(she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Grace Del Pizzo expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in music theater. Del Pizzo has interned with SABR and Crossing Broad and is program director at Blaze Radio.