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‘My way or no way’: Ciena Alipio talks perseverance through injury

Sophomore Ciena Alipio is pictured in front of the beam at Yates Gym at the John Wooden Center. (Ella Greenberg Winnick/Daily Bruin staff)

By Genevieve Trimbell

Jan. 23, 2024 11:03 a.m.

This post was updated Jan. 23 at 11:02 p.m. 

When Ciena Alipio got injured during the preseason, she experienced a moment of doubt.

It was the sophomore’s second consecutive year entering an NCAA season potentially sidelined. She knew just how taxing it would be to come back.

But she drew on something that had helped her push through obstacles throughout her gymnastics career – a mindset forged as a child that she returned to in her hardest moments.

“It was very much my way or no way,” Alipio said. “Coming back from injuries, I’ve had to prove to myself that it doesn’t matter. I can get back. I’m as strong as I was before.”

Alipio began gymnastics at three years old in her hometown of San Jose. Excelling quickly, she was placed into the TOPs program, a talent search for high-achieving young gymnasts.

But soon after Alipio advanced from TOPs to the United States Junior National Team in 2018, she hit the first major obstacle of her gymnastics career. For an elite gymnast who typically trained upward of 40 hours per week, the COVID-19-induced shutdown represented a substantial challenge, especially ahead of her college recruitment.

To get back to training, Alipio moved to Midwest Gymnastics in Minnesota.

“I was gone for a week, and I was like, ‘It’s going to be fine,’” Alipio said. “Then I realized that I was there for months. … That was a really big adjustment, because I didn’t realize how large of a support system I had back home.”

But after a few months, she began to adjust to her new gym and life, and in April 2021, she committed to UCLA. Alipio realized after her move to the Midwest just how important a support system was, and she said UCLA embodied that familial environment.

“At some of the other schools, it very much felt like there were just a lot of girls just coming together for gymnastics,” Alipio said. “Whereas here, I could feel that all of the girls really loved each other and wanted to do it for each other.”

And Alipio had to rely on that familial support system sooner than she expected. Before even making her NCAA debut, she endured a hand injury that threatened to end her season before it could start.

While her strongest event was beam – she placed second on the event at the 2022 U.S. National Championships – Alipio had gone into the NCAA expecting to potentially contribute on the all-around. Her hand injury made that impossible, and she said she was discouraged that she may not be able to compete at all.

But her teammates and coaches helped lift her up.

“Once I heard their confidence in me, it really did help kind of set a fire,” Alipio said. “Everybody knows I can do this. I need to believe it.”

Alipio competes on beam at the Super 16 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)
Alipio competes on beam at the Super 16 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

With that support, Alipio created a hands-free beam routine that allowed her to compete in every meet while averaging a 9.832 during the Bruins’ 2023 campaign – a year that took them to nationals for the first time since 2019.

The “my way or no way” mindset Alipio cultivated as a child helped her contribute to the team, even as an injured freshman.

“Once I was able to start actually training again, … I had to really set my mind to, ‘I’m going to compete on beam this year,’” Alipio said. “There was no other option. That very fresh confidence is really what did help drive me to actually make lineups every week.”

Armed with confidence from year one and healing from her hand injury, Alipio increased training, expecting to be able to contribute to multiple events during her sophomore season.

But in the middle of the offseason, she suffered another injury – this time, one that required surgery on her knee.

“I was trying to channel freshman Ciena, which was like, ‘No, you’re competing,’” Alipio said. “There were a lot of personal doubts because instead of being an arm where I can just get away with not using it, it was my knee, so it was just a very different animal in that sense.”

She leaned on her coaches and teammates once again. Alipio discussed a training plan with beam coach Autumn Grable and took ownership of her gymnastics in order to return to the lineups.

Alipio sits on the balance beam at Yates Gym in the John Wooden Center. (Ella Greenberg Winnick/Daily Bruin staff)
Alipio sits on the balance beam at Yates Gym in the John Wooden Center. (Ella Greenberg Winnick/Daily Bruin staff)

Coach Janelle McDonald said Alipio’s perseverance, which led to her entering the beam lineup at the Super 16 two weeks ago, demonstrates how strong her dedication is.

“She said, ‘I’m going to be ready for my team, because I know they can use me,’” McDonald said. “It’s a testament to her character and the hard work she puts in, even when she’s having a setback, to be where she is today.”

Still recovering from her knee injury, Alipio said she is drawing on that confidence to better both her gymnastics and her role as a teammate.

Her hard work isn’t going unnoticed by her fellow Bruins.

Graduate student Margzetta Frazier, who broke her foot during the 2022 season, said Alipio’s perseverance has inspired her through her day-to-day injuries as well.

“Watching all of them come in every day, even when they’re tired and they’d rather sleep in – that really helped me improve,” Frazier said. “Like Ciena, that’s the reason why I’m able to even compete today.”

After a fall at the Super 16 and taking a week off from the lineup to build confidence, Alipio returned to beam Sunday at the Denver Quad, contributing a season-high 9.825 to the lineup.

Despite her continued setback working through her injury, Alipio is looking forward to the future.

“It felt very much like a repeat of last year, and I had to quickly break myself out of that mindset,” Alipio said. “It was hard to go through. But I’m very excited about this season now.”

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Genevieve Trimbell | Sports contributor
Trimbell is currently a contributor on the gymnastics and rowing beats.
Trimbell is currently a contributor on the gymnastics and rowing beats.
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