By Christy Sandmaier

If Raena Worley isn’t on your NCAA gymnastics radar, she should be. Though you’ll never hear her say that. The junior Kinesiology and Communication major who hails from Christiansburg, Va., who says her teammates would describe her as spontaneous, encouraging, and supportive, is very thankful for her journey in the sport and every opportunity she has to compete for the University of Kentucky. 

But make no mistake, behind her humbleness is a fire that shines brightly in competition and has consistently placed Worley among the top six in the All-Around standings in a star-studded field that includes Olympic gold medalists Sunisa Lee (Auburn) and Jade Carey (Oregon State), Florida’s Trinity Thomas, Minnesota’s Lexy Ramler and Michigan’s Natalie Wojcik. In an NCAA environment that’s peaking in popularity across the country, Worley is there first and foremost for her team and says the No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats are just getting started. 

On the floor, she competes with ultra focus on every event and owns one of the best full-ins in the business. She’s also stacking up records week after week as a Wildcat. Worley is the three-time SEC Gymnast of the Week which is no small feat considering the competition, and posted Kentucky’s highest regular season All-Around score since 1996 (39.750) in week 4. She’s also scored over a 9.9 or higher 21 times this season. Getting her own 10 is only a matter of time.

Worley is an inspirational leader who understands the importance of recognizing student athletes as people and embraces each experience as one to learn and grow. To put it simply, Worley loves competing with her team for Kentucky. And for someone who didn’t realize how big college gymnastics was heading into her freshman year, Worley now bleeds Kentucky blue and white and can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“Raena is leading this team the best way possible – and that is by example,” said head coach, Tim Garrison. “She has been a steady, consistent leader for us and it’s rewarding beyond measure as her coach to see her succeeding at such a high level.”

Coming off of week 5 which saw program records soaring across the country and 10s flying (some perfect, some not), where the season goes from here is anyone’s guess. Each week we watch the rankings come out and positions shift, lineups change, teams on the rise doing everything they can to break into the top spots, and everyone trying to stay healthy. It’s a long road to Nationals in Fort Worth after all. 

For Worley, it’s faith, family and a team she cherishes guiding her every step of the way, keeping her grounded and inspiring her to the point of grateful tears at times during our interview. I sat down with her right before the Wildcat’s first-ever historic regular season win over the Georgia Gym Dogs in a quad meet also featuring Illinois and Central Michigan. The team scored over a 49 on every event and Worley continued her streak of All-Around crowns.

On Friday, they head to Arkansas to compete against the No. 14 Razorbacks in Barnhill which is certain to be an exciting matchup between both teams and can be seen live on the SEC Network+. With week 6 rolling for Worley and her Wildcats, it’s yet another opportunity to compete for each other, she says, “Yes, the gymnastics, but first and foremost we’re there for the team and we’re there for each other before the gymnastics.”

Let’s meet her now!

What’s creating the consistency for you week after week?

I really think going into this entire season knowing I just wanted to have fun and enjoy it. Being so close to Nationals last year definitely gave us more of a fire than we’ve had before. Really understanding our team has what it takes and going out there and being really confident with everything has been really fun for us.

Talk about the preparation over the summer and fall working toward consistently becoming one of the top teams…

We did a lot of strength training. This summer, we mainly focused on power and all the things that can help us in tumbling and throughout our routine. In the gym, a lot of people worked upgrades but we fine-tuned a lot. It wasn’t just upgrades and big skills, we really focused on the details. 

Facing so many challenges this season as far as COVID protocol, tell us about getting prepared for each week not always knowing if there will be a meet at the end of it!

Typically, at the beginning of each week, we have a meeting before practice and on Mondays, Tim is usually like, “We have a meet this weekend, hopefully”(laughs). We’re going with the flow as much as we can and staying prepared. At the beginning of season when our first meet was canceled, there was another meet happening, so we were all ready to pack our bags and go back home or travel to compete in a different competition. So really, just staying on top of our game and being prepared for anything.

How do you help lead and keep everyone motivated during this season with so many changes taking place?

Being able to support one another outside of the gym, getting together for meals, just hanging out and really just knowing we’re there to support each other no matter what’s going on. With all the past craziness, for me, this is the most normal year we’ve had so far. It’s been a lot of fun. The uncertainty of it is unfortunate, but it’s still just as exciting as it ever has been.

With the freshman class coming in, you know, they had their jitters and we tried to explain to them it’s going to feel different than club. In college, you land and whether it’s a step or a stick, everybody is so excited for you. You have an endless amount of support behind you.

Tell us about your journey to Kentucky and how the program has become home to you.

I come from a really small town and I went to Virginia Techniques all my life growing up there. I didn’t really know how the recruiting process worked up until freshman year [of high school]. I was aware of what college gymnastics was but I didn’t know how big it was. Especially for where I was in gymnastics, I look back and I’m very surprised, I had no idea about any of this! I looked into a couple of different schools, and growing up my Dad and I traveled to Kentucky all the time so coming here I was pretty familiar with the area. I think we came right before my freshman year and I committed at the end of my freshman year after my second visit. I love Kentucky. It was comfortable. [I felt] this is exactly where I need to be. 

Did you train Elite or think about the Olympic path at all? 

The same year actually, I was looking into the Olympic route. I trained for that for maybe a week and it wasn’t for me. It made gymnastics seem so hard. I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I wanted to so we decided to take a step back and really focus on something that would make me happier. Something I could enjoy more, which then turned into college.

It’s such a tough decision to make at that age. And to know yourself so well, where do you think that maturity or instinct came from?

I think it definitely had something to do with my upbringing. My Mom went to college for dancing and she understood how the process worked because she had been through it before. My Mom and Dad have always been super supportive of my goals. When I came home from practice and told my Mom I wanted to try Elite she was all for it, and then training started to be different and I decided not to. It was always my decision. A gut instinct – I’ve always been taught to understand and trust that if something  doesn’t feel right, I’m not going to push myself to do it. The coaching staff at Techniques really helped me with that, too. 

That decision has definitely paid off! How does it feel to be named SEC Gymnast of the Week three times?

It’s crazy! I can’t wrap my brain around it. I had, I don’t want to say an expectation, but I’m a very goal-driven person… this wasn’t necessarily one at the top of my roster. First was Nationals with the team and then the first time it happened I was like, “That’s cool!” Then the second and the third [time], I was like, “Holy cow!” There’s so many good gymnasts out in the SEC. I think it’s pretty cool knowing I’m competing at that level with them. 

With all of the Olympians coming into the NCAA this season, does it change anything for you or your team as far as training, or pressure?

We’re aware and that’s just kind of common knowledge they’re out there in the NCAA, but we’re Kentucky and we’re going to do our best and keep kicking it!

Everyone across the country is competing at such an amazing high level and the number of fans have really increased this year as well. What’s it like competing in front of your home crowd?

There’s something special to be said about Kentucky’s home crowd. There’s so much of the fan base that’s extremely supportive all the time whether it’s just Blue-White, which is our practice competition, or Excite Night and we fill up an arena. There’s nothing like it. It’s so fun and so special. It feels like you know every single person there.

Do you have a favorite event to perform? Your floor has gone 9.925 or higher each time out this season…

That’s actually a funny question because it used to be always floor and I still love floor. It’s my favorite right now. Bars is up there and now, vault is up there. And I used to hate vault!

What’s made the difference in the vault?

I was never one percent confident on my vault. I was always questioning going into it and then this preseason, Chad came in and he taught me the technique that works best for me. I really learned to trust my gymnastics and know that I’m going to be fine each time I go out there.

Tell us about some of your pre meet rituals! How do you get hyped up and focused?

Before the meet, we say the Lord’s Prayer. We hold hands and pray. A lot of us are Christians on the team so we go by that. And when we walk out we start chants. I got a chant this year which is super exciting for me! We all have been going by the song “Pump It Up” this year because we’re going to pump it up as much as we can!

What are the goals for the team and for yourself going forward?

Personally, to start off, I would like to go to Nationals for the All-Around. I got a taste of it last year and it would be so fun to go back. Getting the team to Nationals, that is the ultimate goal. Just having everybody there and being able to experience something special like that would be amazing. I know the team can get there. And I think we have the ability to place pretty high. We just have to be confident and go for it. 

With the competition as strong as it is, what will make the difference for your team as you strive to be one of the final four teams on the floor?

The details. Tim, Chad and Rachel are judging a little bit harder than I would anticipate them to. They’re expecting us to rise to that level and when we do, we raise that expectation of ourselves so that we know we can hit like that.

What have you learned most from your teammates?

I could cry at this question… they really just taught me they’re always going to be there. I’m always going to have someone behind me and supporting me. Being able to feel so loved by a team that feels like more than a team, definitely a family. Every one of the girls is so special to me and I have been able to grow so much in knowledge, gymnastics, friendships. There’s people on the team I didn’t anticipate having as much impact on my life as they have and I can’t imagine my life without them.

What would you like people to know about you that they might not already?

I have four brothers and we’re all in sports, so I’m from a big family! I would say the three words my Mom told before I go out and compete: strength, joy and confidence; because the Lord has given me strength, and I have confidence and can go out and handle it. And, I run with my fingers crossed! I run and when I hurdle, they open! 

Finally, for a gymnast considering Kentucky, what’s your advice?

Be ready to be part of a family! Tim is fantastic. Never be afraid to approach him, or Rachel. They’re such amazing people. Go big. Tim loves it when people go big. So, go big or go home! Definitely follow us because we’re on fire! I think we’ll surprise a lot of people this season.

Photos by University of Kentucky Athletics

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