Gymnasts Archer, Lealaogata blazing trail for Arizona Dreams
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part series on Arizona Dreams Gymnastics Academy in Prescott Valley.
PRESCOTT VALLEY — At the end of April, Marissa Archer, 16, and Jayda Lealaogata, 12, of Arizona Dreams Gymnastics Academy became the budding program’s first Level 9 gymnasts in several years to reach the prestigious Junior Olympic Western National Championships in Missoula, Montana.
Of the gym’s 14 regional qualifiers in 2016, Archer placed third and Lealaogata seventh in their respective age groups at regionals to earn spots at Western Nationals. They are two of seven Level 9 gymnasts – those on the high end of the competitive spectrum – at Arizona Dreams who started at levels 3 and 4 several years ago.
On her way to qualifying for Western Nationals at the University of Montana’s Adams Center, Archer was part of a seven-member Region I team that placed first at regionals. Gymnasts from Arizona, California and Nevada were represented on the squad, which competed at Western Nationals together.
“It was a really awesome experience because getting to compete with people you didn’t know and trying to win a team award as a group was really cool,” said Archer, who overcame a nagging ankle injury to finish the 2015-16 season strong. “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of pressure, besides the fact of college coaches being there. You had more fun cheering for other teammates and stuff.”
At Western Nationals, which showcased the finest youth gymnasts from across the American West, Archer placed fifth among 16-year-olds. She posted a 36.7 score in the all-around, which factored in her scores in the vault, bars, beam and floor exercise.
Meanwhile, Lealaogata represented the youngest Level 9 athlete Arizona Dreams has ever sent to Western Nationals. She finished 26th at nationals in her age group with a 35.175 score in the all-around.
Arizona Dreams owner/head coach Summer Andrew said all of the gym’s levels 7-9 gymnasts, or those who compete in optionals, qualified for regionals this year.
With the 2015-16 season in the books, Archer, an incoming junior at Bradshaw Mountain High, and Lealaogata are aspiring to reach the coveted Level 10.
Andrew said she hopes to have several gymnasts at Level 10, which is considered the second-highest level in gymnastics behind the Elite levels, in forthcoming years. Those who reach Level 10 have a shot to compete collegiately.
Five of Arizona Dreams’ current coaches, including Andrew, Heather Davis, Bob Hoyt, Kim Waples and Jon Aitken, have combined to mentor more than 20 gymnasts who’ve received college scholarships.
“My plan is to get a whole lot more [girls at this gym competing in college],” Andrew said.
Andrew has encouraged her coaches to attend high-end coaching seminars. That way the coaches are equipped to assist the girls in reaching their potential and, if they are willing and able, earn college scholarships as gymnasts.
Archer, for instance, said she hopes to earn a scholarship to Arizona State University in Tempe in a couple years.
Despite these great expectations, Andrew realizes that not all of the girls in her gym will want to compete at the sport’s highest levels.
In fact, many of them attend the gym simply to have fun and stay physically fit.
“We want to see that they reach their potential – they can go to college and do gymnastics if that’s what they want to do,” Andrew said. “We want a program that would encompass all types of kids.”
Added coach Davis, “If kids only get to be Level 3s, or whatever they do, gymnastics in some way is going to make them a better human being and a better person in life – whether we take someone to the Olympics or whether they just come into our gym and have a great experience and get healthy and fit and feel confident about themselves. We want all these little girls to have mass confidence in themselves when they go out in the world.”
stars must align
There’s a famous quote by an anonymous individual who once said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Andrew has the saying hanging up in the Arizona Dreams gym.
Andrew said she wants to help her Level 10 girls reach the Elite ranks – although, in the end, those special gymnasts must give the requisite time and effort to succeed. Level 10 gymnasts are those who could eventually compete in international meets and national championships, akin to Olympic athletes.
“The stars have to align [for that to happen],” Andrew added.
Arizona Dreams, which moved to its current location at 7175 E. 2nd St. in Prescott Valley four years ago, has been in operation for the past five years. Its program started with 139 children and currently has more than 300. About 70 of those 300 kids compete in the gym’s competitive team program.
“I wanted ‘dream’ in the name – dreaming and believing in the things you are working for, even if you’re from a small town,” Andrew said.
Andrew and coach Davis have known each other for decades. In 2007, Andrew reconnected with Davis, an Arizona native, when the former returned to town from Utah.
Andrew, who was born in Prescott, is driven to succeed with Arizona Dreams – at least in part because of her experiences growing up poor on a farm in Chino Valley. To participate in gymnastics as a child, she would have to catch a ride to the Prescott YMCA.
“Prescott YMCA was the only place to go [for gymnastics] when I was a kid, and it was good for me,” she said. “It gave me my start. It fueled my fire. I knew there was more.”
At age 16, Andrew coached for famous Olympic coach Bela Karolyi. At 19, she coached with a Russian couple, Alex and Katia Schennicova, for eight years on her mission to become an Elite-level coach.
After living in Utah for eight years to learn the coaching craft, Andrew moved back to this area nine years ago. She became passionate about offering the best coaching possible to her young children and the other gymnasts.
“It’s about giving them the chance I never got,” Andrew said.
Coach Davis, a veteran of 25-plus years who grew up in Prescott, has similar feelings. She wants gymnastics to grow for the youth in Prescott Valley, Prescott, Chino Valley and beyond in central Yavapai County.
“I felt like my dreams and goals as an athlete never got achieved, and it was really hard for me after giving the sport up,” she added. “The more I got into coaching, the more I started filling that gap, or void, for myself as a gymnast. I was like, ‘Well, maybe if I didn’t achieve my ultimate goals, I can help some of these kids in this area achieve theirs.’ ”