COLUMBIA, Mo. - Cierra Gaytan-Leach is a Southern California girl who found a home in Mid-Missouri.
"I'm a big country fan, and I like that whole kind of lifestyle," the senior says of the area. "So I just really enjoy it."
Gaytan-Leach closed out her Missouri career with a second-team all-SEC honor. She helped the Tigers defeat Arkansas in the first round of the SEC Championships, which was played in Columbia.
The Texas transfer has tennis in her blood. Her aunt is Lindsay Davenport, a former No. 1 singles player. Gaytan-Leach calls Davenport "an amazing person."
"I look up to her," she said of the hall of famer.
But then there is Rick Leach, her father. Leach is a three-time doubles champion at the Australian Open. But has not been a part of the Missouri senior's life. Interaction has been limited, even though the two are accomplished athletes in their sport.
"In spite of him, I kind of wanted to have amazing success have people like, 'Wow, your daughter is doing this,'" Gaytan-Leach said of her father. "So it is a really strong motivator for me.'"
Gaytan-Leach grew up in a single-parent household, with her mother ,Noel Gaytan, raising her. She also praises her uncle, Sal Gayton, for being an emotional pillar. Gaytan-Leach also said she has a relationship with Jon Leach, Rick's brother, who is married to Davenport.
"My mom played junior college tennis," The Tigers No. 1 player said. "So she is a tennis player as well. I'm her only child, so we're very close. We sometimes bicker. But at the end of the day, I love her with all my heart."
The Newport Beach, Calif. native transferred from Texas looking for a fresh start. While she was home, Gaytan-Leach said former Mizzou player Nine Pantic (a UCLA transfer) convinced her to look at Missouri. She visited, and later committed.
"No one really knows who my father is over here (in Columbia). So I kind of just get to go out there and prove myself. It was really nice."
Gaytan-Leach has seen her fair share of challenges on the court this season. She faced 20 ranked singles players, having to play at the No. 1 spot most of her Missouri career. She went 37-30 in her two years at Missouri.
As she put her father's lack of presence behind her, she was faced with another emotional challenge. Jon Walters, a close family friend and freshman water polo player at the University of California, unexpectedly died in early January.
"I have never been through anything like that before," Gaytan-Leach said. "It just changed my whole senior year perspective on life. Every workout, every practice, I never complained really. I just took on a whole new perspective and just learned to really be grateful and live for each day."
Her resolve was evident when she came back to Columbia this Spring. Gaytan-Leach closed out the season with three singles victories in Missouri's last five matches. She also wears a bracelet that says, "Fight on, Jon."
Through it all, Gaytan-Leach also leaned on her team, especially Sasha Schmid who just finished her third year as Missouri tennis coach.
"Sasha is one of the sweetest people I ever met," Gaytan-Leach said. She is a great supporter, motivator. I really think this program is just going up and keep pursuing, striving, and moving forward."
Gaytan-Leach said she planned to explore a broadcasting career, while also explore opportunities in real-estate now that her collegiate career is over.