By Ashlee Buhler 

2021 was a busy year for U.S. national team member Ciena Alipio—but one with a big payoff. At the start of the year, she packed her bags and moved over 2,000 miles away from home to train at Midwest Gymnastics in Minnesota. It was a big change, but allowed her to be in the gym training to make her long-awaited senior debut, which of course was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alipio started her season at the Winter Cup with a sixth-place All-Around finish and a performance that showed both grace and confidence. Her summer was filled with what 2020 lacked: opportunities to show off her hard work in a competition setting. First came the American Classic and the U.S. Classic, then came the U.S. Championships, where she finished ninth on beam. A few months later, Alipio competed at the Worlds Selection Camp and was awarded an international assignment in Switzerland. After bringing home the All-Around bronze at the Arthur Gander Memorial earlier this month, Alipio capped off her whirlwind year by signing her NLI to compete for her dream school, UCLA! 

Inside Gymnastics caught up with Alipio, fresh off her bronze medal performance in Switzerland, to talk about her 2021 season and what lies ahead as she prepares for her final year of Elite competition and her future as a UCLA Bruin!

Congratulations on your performance in Switzerland! How did it feel to be back out there on the international stage?  

It felt amazing being back out on the competition floor representing the U.S. I had such a great time competing with Yul and meeting all of the gymnasts from around Europe who I was competing alongside.

Your competitive senior debut was delayed because of the pandemic, and you also switched gyms during that time. How was that whole transition period for you? 

This year was definitely a big change for me altogether. I moved to Minnesota from California in January because of COVID restrictions in California that made it extremely hard to train. I knew that the goals I had set for myself would not have been met if I did not train more hours.  The decision to move across the country and switch gyms was not something that came easy, but I think that’s what was best for me so that I could do as well as I could last season. The transition from Junior Elite to Senior Elite was just as difficult as the decision to move gyms. It had been more than a year and half since I competed last and honestly, I was nervous for the upcoming season.  So, at the beginning of the year, I was just focused on trying to get my skills and strength back from 2019 and trying to get back into competition shape for Winter Cup. As the season progressed, I was still working to get all of my skills back while also learning new skills and trying to have fun in the gym. 

The gym switch meant you got new teammates, one of which was Suni Lee, who went on to win the All-Around gold in Tokyo. What was it like watching her compete at the Olympics and do so well? 

Watching Suni win gold this summer at the Olympics was such a cool feeling because I had been training with her since January and I saw her work so hard to achieve her dreams. I watched her push herself to her limits; day in and day out putting in the work. To see it all pay off made me so happy for her. I got up really early that morning to watch her compete and I’m so glad that I did. I texted her right away to congratulate her!

What does next season look like for you? Will you be continuing Elite or shifting your focus to get ready for college gymnastics? 

Next season, I will be continuing with Elite for my senior year. I am extremely excited to be going to UCLA next fall, but I knew that I wanted to finish out this coming season as an Elite and hopefully get another international assignment in the spring. 

Tell us about making the decision to go to UCLA and what you might like to study. 

A handful of reasons led me to choose UCLA. I had three main priorities in mind when looking for the college that would be the best fit for me. I wanted to make sure that the academics were just as important to the team as the sport was, that the team dynamic was more of a “family” rather than just a group of girls coming together to compete for a single school sport, and ultimately, that it was in California. I wanted to stay close to my parents in the Bay Area after living out of state for over a year. It just made me feel more comfortable knowing that if I needed to get home, it was easily accessible. UCLA had everything I was looking for! I hope to study psychology or something where I’m able to help others, maybe kids or athletes. 

What are some of your future goals in the sport? 

Some of my goals as I finish off this Elite season are to make one last international assignment in the spring of 2022 and just have some fun competing! My future goals for college are to be able to compete beam as much as possible and then hopefully transition into being an all-around competitor for the team. 

When you look back on your career so far, what are you most proud of? 

It’s hard to say what I am most proud of.  I’m proud of how I’ve grown as a result of being a part of this sport. I’ve learned persistence, how to handle disappointment, and how to be dedicated in pursuing your goals. I am also proud of some of the results from my blood, sweat and tears. I’m so happy to say that I am a four-time national team member and to have been on two international assignments. I am also really proud of myself for this past month, where I got to compete in Switzerland and sign my NLI with UCLA!

What do you like to do when you’re not in the gym? 

When I’m not in the gym, I love to spend any free time with my friends and family, travel, and just hang out around the house watching Netflix or TikToks. Since I’ve been traveling a lot this past month, I’m really excited to be able to just stay in one place for a while and have some time to myself where I’m able to focus on just school and training. 

What is one thing fans might not know about you? 

One thing fans might not know about me is that I did a season of softball when I was 9 years-old and I did dance from about 3 years-old to 15 years-old, as well as gymnastics. 

What’s one item on your bucket list? 

One item on my bucket list would be to visit all of the Disney properties and parks. I’d love to travel the world to the Disneyland parks in Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, and Tokyo, as well as be able to go back to Disneyland in Anaheim, the Aulani in Hawaii, and Disney World in Orlando!

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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