VISALIA — Surrounded by parents, friends and teammates at Central California Gymnastics Institute, it was finally time. Destiny Watley signed her letter of intent to continue her gymnastics career at Sacramento State with a full-ride scholarship.

“It means a lot to me because I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it to this point,” Watley said. “I don’t know how to feel about it. I know it’s like happening, but it’s still hard to believe.”

And to think, it almost didn’t happen.

A couple of years ago, Watley’s mom, Mashika Bowen, came into Central California Gymnastics Institute (CCGI ) and said, “This is going to be it for [Watley].”

She could no longer afford the payments for her daughter’s gymnastics classes. As a single mother working three jobs at one point, Bowen had reached her end. It would have been the second time Watley was being pulled out of gymnastics due to financial issues. But not this time as CCGI rallied around her.

Owner and coach Donna Franzini said her initial thought about Watley stopping gymnastics was, “No.” If it was just about money, Franzini wanted her to continue on and was going to help get her to her final destination.

“Between CCGI and the booster club we all got together and made it to where we could enable her to stay in the sport with the dreams of hopefully she’d be able to get a college scholarship and go to college,” Franzini said.

They gave her a scholarship through a program CCGI has where they help families pay for tuition when they’re going through hardships. They worked with Bowen to keep Watley in gymnastics and here she was signing her letter of intent on Monday night.

“It shows that they care a lot,” Watley said. “We’re more like a family than just my coaches and teammates. They know the struggle and they helped me out, so it means a lot.”

The 17-year-old was sitting at a table donned in green and gold with balloons on each side crowning her shining moment. A large sign behind Watley read “Sacramento State” with a picture of a hornet — the team’s mascot.

There was photo after photo with friends, there were tears, there were laughs and everything in between. Franzini couldn’t help but get choked up when talking about what a pleasure it’s been to coach Watley. Her mother followed suit with the tears, but what else do you expect from such an amazing moment?

“This is what we do it for. It’s about the kids,” Franzini said. “For a kid to fulfill their dream is what I do this for. To be able to enable her to have this kind of future is amazing so that draws that emotion out.”

Watley will be the first in her family to go to a four-year college and her full-ride will cover everything. Bowen did say Watley will have to pay for her own shoes since she’s got her own “shoe game” that she likes.

Picking Sacramento State wasn’t always the first option. Originally, Watley was looking to go out of state, but came home one day and said she wanted to stay in California as the thought of leaving her family was too much.

She visited San Jose, Sacramento State and spoke with UC Davis. Her interest was already drawn toward Sacramento State since the coaches came to her campus. Then came the visit.

“After my unofficial visit, I knew I would fit in,” Watley said.

Watley visited the weekend of Sept. 16 and had her official visit on Nov. 14, which only solidified her choice.

The funny thing was that Watley didn’t tell anyone she had been offered a full-ride scholarship after she came back from her visit at Sacramento State.

“We’re so humble we didn’t even know that that was what was offered to us until we got home from Sacramento,” Bowen said.

Even when she verbally accepted the scholarship, she still didn’t tell anyone. Her humble nature and hard work didn’t allow her to tell anyone. She wanted to make sure that the scholarship was really hers. But after all the hard work she had put in, it really did belong to her.

It started not too long before her 8th birthday, Watley saw a girl outside her grandfather’s apartments. She was cheering and tumbling, which piqued the interest of a young Watley. She asked what she was doing and was told cheer and gymnastics. But Watley didn’t care for the cheering part, “I want to do the flips,” she recalled she said.

Watley’s wish came true when she was put in gymnastics for her 8th birthday and enjoyed it from the first moment.

“Every time I would go home, I would try new stuff,” Watley said. “I taught myself how to do a back handspring on the couches.”

Bowen let her compete before really understanding how expensive gymnastics could be. Unfortunately, she soon realized and had to pull Watley out after about two years because it was too expensive.

Fast forward a year and a half later and it was Watley’s first time at CCGI. At the age of 12, she was considered a late starter for high-level gymnastics since most start when they’re very young. But that didn’t stop Watley from taking off. She started as a level five gymnast and in three months had leapfrogged to level seven.

Now at level 10, Watley puts in 20 or more hours of training each week and is a rigorous worker. When she gets home, it’s time for homework which sometimes takes her past midnight Bowen said. Yet, Watley takes it all in stride and maintains a 3.8 GPA at Hanford West without ever having a bad attitude.

She understands how much hard work goes into her being able to do gymnastics and the costs and time associated with it. They’ve been from Texas to Florida to Arizona and lots of other different places, which all cost money.

“[My supporters] don’t give up so they taught me not to give up,” Watley said. “That helps me do good at practice because I don’t give up because of how much people have put in to get me here.”

With her winning attitude and a work ethic that’s second to none, Watley will be fine at the next level. She likes her teammates, coaches and will still be close to home. All things that were important to her.

“I want to make a name for myself in a good way,” Watley said. “Go there to do what I was supposed to do, not try to change up. Meet new people, work hard and get my career.”

Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or ngarcia@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.

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