Champions on the Rise

Desert Companion

With their dedication, discipline, and
determination, these athletes are talents to watch

Editor’s note: According to numerous media reports, Aaliyah Gayles suffered multiple gunshot injuries on April 16, and is facing a long recovery. A GoFundMe account has been set up to support her medical care and rehabilitation.

Aaliyah Gayles
Basketball


THE BUZZ: Eighth in ESPN’s HoopGurlz national recruiting rankings and named to the McDonald’s All-American team, senior point guard Gayles led Spring Valley High School in points, assists, and steals to propel the Grizzlies to a 14-8 record and the state semifinals.

THE PROSPECTS: The 5-foot-9 Gayles will play for USC in the fall and study kinesiology, learning the science behind the explosive athleticism she brings to the court.

Four years ago, when Gayles was a small-framed freshman, the Grizzlies were leading a tournament title game. A strong opponent, Alissa Pili, began attacking the basket and posing the only real threat. “She was a force to be reckoned with,” coach Billy Hemberger recalls. “And Aaliyah said, ‘Coach, I got it.’ In my mind, I was like, ‘You’re skin and bones. How?’ But she fought like hell to find a way to make us win. Accepting that challenge at such a young age was unique.”

Support comes from

Gayles, now 18, remembers being surprised that she got the tough assignment. “I wasn’t scared at all. It was just another opponent,” she says. Gayles clung to Pili, and when Pili fouled out, the Grizzlies coasted to a win. “Sorry!” Gayles curtly concludes, hinting at a fierce competitive nature.

“She is unique in that she does everything,” Hemberger says. “Her athleticism is out of control. That’s what everybody loves immediately about her. … And statistically, she fills everything up with points, rebounds, steals, assists.”

Gayles always had the ability to go from zero to 60 in no time, but her hard work to become a better shooter has paid off. Stopping Gayles is most teams’ top priority. “She will use that to be able to use herself as a decoy to get her teammates going,” her coach says. “Then when her teammates are going, she starts creating for herself.”

Inspired by her father and late grandfather to play and get better, Gayles says she needs to tighten her ball handling and be more consistent with the three-point shot at the next level. Being closer to family she doesn’t see often in Southern California and the nurturing atmosphere at USC guided Gayles’ decision to go there.

“It’s a big support system there,” she says. “They’re more than just coaches. They’re like family. They take good care of you — especially the teammates I’m already close with,” including that player she guarded four years ago, Alissa Pili.

From the start, Hemberger has witnessed Gayles’ keen loyalty to team, family, and school. “She does it for people. She doesn’t want to let people down, especially those that are in her corner day in and day out,” he says.

She agrees: “I’ll do something for you before I do something for myself.” Paul Szydelko

Paige Kuwata
Swimming

THE BUZZ: Kuwata may be less of a household name than Erica Sullivan and Katie Grimes, who went to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (and brought home a silver medal and fourth place, respectively), but, she trains alongside them with the Sandpipers of Nevada and is a member of USA Swimming’s Junior National Team. Kuwata also went to the 2020 Olympic trials and missed qualifying for the U.S. team by just two spots.

THE PROSPECTS: A high school senior, Kuwata has committed to the University of Louisville, a school with a solid swim team that’s been getting consistently better under the guidance of head coach Arthur Albiero, according to Sandpipers coach Jake Des Roches. Kuwata says she picked Louisville, of all the schools recruiting her, during an unofficial visit in 2019. “They felt like more of a family than just a swim team,” she says. “That was important to me, to find people that I could trust and knew I would get along with.” 

Swimming is physically taxing for anyone, but even more so for Kuwata, whose specialty of long-distance events is partly because of her height. At 5-foot-2, she’s at a competitive disadvantage in shorter-distance races, where the length of a body stretching for a touch pad can mean a difference of split seconds — fractions that separate winners and losers. Over greater distances, with longer times, that advantage dwindles, but Kuwata still has to make extra effort. 

“She’s what we call a high-tempo swimmer who, in order to go the same speed as someone taller than her, has to take more strokes,” Des Roches says. “So, even though she’s in the long-distance races, it looks like she’s sprinting. She’s a really good kicker, with excellent legs.”

Getting up at 4:30 a.m. to train in a cold pool requires resolve. What keeps Kuwata going? Her goals, she says. She’s looking to make the open-water national team this month (April), meaning she’d have to be in the top six competitors in a 10k race.

“Right now, I’m focusing on a World Junior trip (the Championships in Open Water Swimming in Seychelles off East Africa, in September), which is what I’m trying to qualify for,” she says, “as well as just contributing to my college team.”

Determination is Kuwata’s defining characteristic. Asked to give an example, she tells this story:  

“Back in May 2019, I was at a competition out of town. I woke up, got out of bed, and had a seizure. I had a roommate with me, and one of the chaperones is a firefighter. So, he helped me through it. When I woke up, the race had started, so I knew I wasn’t going to swim that day, which was hard. But luckily, I had two other races that weekend. I didn’t know what it felt like to have a seizure; that was my first one. (The next day) my body was in a lot of pain. My head was still pretty foggy. But I told myself, ‘I’m going to do this.’ So, I swam a 5k that day and came in seventh. I don’t know what went through my head when I decided I was going to swim, because honestly that’s kind of a lot. And then I did another one the day after …”

Soon after, Kuwata was diagnosed as epileptic, a condition she says she neither wants to avoid talking about — for fear of perpetuating the stigma around it — nor let define her.

“It’s certainly scary, as a coach, to see a kid you care about have that happen,” Des Roches says. “But the most important thing is, we’re not going to coach her any differently because of this. We just have to be aware of this and know how to protect her if something does happen. She’s still the same swimmer as she was before. She’s still the same kid.” 

And that kid is a warrior and a role model, he adds. “Paige always wants to be competing and racing — even in practices, she has the attitude of not just working hard but wanting to win. It’s a positive influence on the younger kids.” Heidi Kyser

Nicholas Candela
Fencing

THE BUZZ:Currently the sixth-ranked fencer in the United States for his age group (20 and under), Candela is a member of Battle Born Fencing Club and represents himself on the United States National Team.

THE PROSPECTS: Now a senior at Bishop Gorman High School, Candela has committed to the University of Notre Dame. But last year, he was on the verge of calling it quits. After years of toiling under the fluorescent lights of Battle Born Fencing Club, Candela looked down the aisle at his opponent for what he thought would be the last time. It was USA Fencing’s July Challenge, one of the last marquee events during the college recruiting live period — and his last chance to prove to himself and to college coaches that he belonged on the Division 1 stage. Back then, he was ranked outside of the top 50, and no one, not even his club coaches, believed he’d be able to take on a field that included national champions, Junior World medalists, and recruits from powerhouses such as Princeton and Columbia. Despite the odds stacked against him, Candela set the tournament on fire, placing third out of 218 of the best fencers in the country. It was enough of a performance to land him an offer from Notre Dame, launching a career that would eventually take him all the way to the International Fencing Federation Team World Cup in Belgrade, Serbia.

Candela always knew he had the talent to go far in the sport. “A month before I got my first national medal, my coach was going to have a talk with me about pursuing fencing as a recreational thing,” says the 18-year-old. “The second-to-last-tournament I had done pretty poorly, and my coach had asked me, ‘How did you feel about that last tournament?’ And I told him, ‘I really feel like I’m right on the edge.’ After I told him, he kind of shut his mouth, and I got third at the next tournament.”

His coach, Walter Dragonetti, is certainly a believer now. “Nick has all the skills and tools that embody a champion fencer,” Dragonetti says. “His aggressive style and speed tempered with just the right amount of patience leaves his opponents confused and bewildered.”

It’s those skills and tools — and Candela’s persistence and confidence — that launched him from an unknown fencing prospect to a fixture on fencing’s world stage. As of today, Candela is the sixth-ranked fencer in the United States for his age group, and he hopes to climb to the top of the international and domestic rankings.

This newfound success has motivated Candela to take fencing as far as he possibly can. “(I used to) feel it was just a way to get into college,” he says. “It’s definitely changed now that I’ve gotten more results. Up until last year, I was ranked 50- or 60-something, and I didn’t have any recruitment offers. But now fencing at the Olympic level is a real possibility for me. I’m just going to see how it goes and keep performing well in college. If there’s an opportunity that I can train toward, then 100 percent of the time I’ll take that opportunity.” Ganny Belloni

Trystin Mitchell
Flag Football

THE BUZZ: As a freshman, on her first touch for Liberty High School’s varsity flag football team this season, Mitchell sprinted 60 yards for a touchdown, eliciting “Oohs!” and “Ahs!” from spectators. She also played for the Lady Apex Predators in National Youth Sports (NYS) Nevada and the 15-and-under
Girls USA Flag Football team.

THE PROSPECTS: In addition to refining her gridiron skills, the 15-year-old Mitchell is competing in 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprints, hoping to earn a college scholarship in either track or flag football.

Mitchell began running for the Zephyrs Track Club in a Chicago suburb when she was seven years old and continued in NYS when her family moved to Las Vegas three years later. She shocked her mom, Traci, when she asked about football after watching the NFL on TV and her little brother, Trenton, play.

She knew nothing about football, but coach Troy Smidt of the all-girls Lady Lions taught her the fundamentals. Mitchell excelled both with her quick feet and soft hands for receiving. Playing against boys, she was named the league’s most valuable player, and her team won the NYS Super Bowl in 2018.

“She’s always wanted to be the best in everything,” her mother Traci says. “She wants to beat herself, not necessarily anyone else.”

Liberty High coach Jerry Fewer knew Mitchell’s reputation before she arrived on campus, and she exceeded expectations transitioning from 5-on-5 play with no contact to 7-on-7 with some blocking contact on a larger field. “She lets her talent do everything for her,” he says. “She stops on a dime and goes back with no problem. Her speed is unbelievable.”

A durable, elusive 5-foot-4, Mitchell finds blockers, crisply adjusts, and accelerates into the open. When she burst through to score on that first play, Fewer and his defensive coach (who’s also his daughter) looked at each other, and, he says, “She’s like, ‘Holy crap.’”

Mitchell says that being able to read the field and see where to take the ball is among her strengths.

“When I am playing, my adrenaline is high!” she says. “All I can think about is scoring and accomplishing my goal of three touchdowns per game. I think about doing what I can to contribute. I try not to let the other the team score, whether it be pulling flags or getting an interception.”

Improving her footwork, getting faster at agility ladder drills, sprinting to wins on the track and maintaining a strong GPA are among her goals.

Her favorite subject so far in high school is math, just as well to calculate her rapidly accumulating statistics — 3,269 yards from scrimmage, 33 touchdowns and 115 tackles — leading Liberty High to a 21-4 record and the 4A state championship. PS

Photos by Sabin Orr

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!

KNPR and NPR Thank-You Gifts including t-shirts hoodies and cap

More Stories

Laird Brunson
Desert Companion
Feature
Peyton Sterling
Desert Companion
All in
Mar 01, 2019

Top of Their Game

Kim Boschee
NPR
All in
Sep 01, 2019

Profile: Run, Girl