A family ignited: A cut program in Chicago brought Missouri gymnastics a star

Junior Alisa Sheremeta's unexpected freshman year at UIC separated her from what felt like family, but now she’s found a home in Columbia.

Five days into her freshman year at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Alisa Sheremeta walked into the gym for an early morning meeting. On her way in, she noticed her coaches’ distraught faces, who’d been there for 30 minutes. Every men’s and women’s gymnast at the school waited anxiously, curious as to why they called the meeting.

The Circleville, New York, native sensed something was up. She missed a class for the meeting, and both teams never met at the same time and place.

“What are they gonna tell us?” Sheremeta thought.

As she suspected, it wasn’t good. Before she started her first season for the Flames, she discovered it would be her last.

More than 20 NCAA Division-1 schools cut their “secondary sports” such as tennis, track, or gymnastics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lives of hundreds of student-athletes at schools like Minnesota, Stanford and Clemson changed forever when their programs were taken away.

Now a junior at MU, Sheremeta heard the news when nobody saw it coming.

“I thought they meant they were cutting the funding or something like that,” Sheremeta said. “It hit me a couple seconds after.”

The sudden news shocked Sheremeta and her teammates. Two years later, Garrett Klassy — who UIC hired as athletic director in 2018 — left the Flames for a smaller role at the University of Nebraska. His first decision at UIC meant 31 gymnasts could also only continue their athletic career at another school.

“I really didn't know if I would have an opportunity to transfer or not,” Sheremeta said. “I thought I was going to be there for the rest of my college years without gymnastics.”

Despite the news, Sheremeta and her teammates did their best to have the program reinstated through their performances. She competed in every meet that season, posting season-highs of 9.9 and 9.85 on floor and beam. At the 2019 USAG Nationals, UIC finished second in the team competition and Sheremeta took home second on the floor exercise. Her teammate, Kayla Baddeley, earned her third All-American first-team nod and won the national vault competition to go along with the conference all-around title.

Although countless donations and tens of thousands of petition signatures ultimately failed to revive the program, the players’ spirits were as high as they could be.

“We had a lot of achievements that year, so I think it was a really big success,” Sheremeta said. “We kinda all just made the most out of it.”

When she first moved into UIC, Sheremeta shared an entire floor with other gymnasts.

“We did everything together,” Sheremeta said. “[We] went to the dining hall together, went to the training room together. Some of us even had classes together and we all practiced together, so we were all really close.”

Although they hadn’t competed together, the UIC program felt like family, a feeling that helped draw Sheremeta to the university in the first place. The program stuck out to recruits with co-head coaches Peter and Mary Jansson, who shared the role since 1990.

“They were really supportive of anything you did,” Sheremeta said. “They took care of us like their own kids.”

Mary Jansson, affectionately known as the team’s “mom,” won a Big-Ten Championship on the balance beam with Illinois in 1982. Moments like her embrace with Sheremeta at the 2019 USAG National Championships reminded the freshman of her mother, Tanya, who coached her on the beam until the age of 16.

“Everything [Jansson] said correlated to what my mom did,” Sheremeta said. “It was an easy transition — very comfortable — and it helped grow my confidence on beam especially.”

With both parents as former gymnasts, the Sheremeta household didn’t lack passion for the sport. In addition to Alisa, her younger sister, Deana, recently committed to George Washington University on a gymnastics scholarship.

“I think it runs in the family,” Alisa Sheremeta said. “Judges and other coaches always said how we competed, our technique, how we performed our floor routine is so similar. They said basically my sister is like a mini-me.”

Just like UIC, GWU competes in a league banded solely for gymnastics rather than its usual conference. The East Atlantic Gymnastics League also consists of ACC programs like North Carolina and Pitt. When it came to her sister’s decision, Sheremeta said she wasn’t convinced right away.

“Personally, [I was] just a little bit worried,” Sheremeta said. “I know a lot of times gymnastics is one of the first sports to go.”

Just a week after her final competition as a Flame, Sheremeta visited Columbia and decided to play for the Tigers.

She finished the school year training back home in New York and moved out of her dorm at UIC before starting the gritty end of the transfer process. As she transferred credits, enrolled in classes and found new roommates, Sheremeta spent two whole months training in Missouri and figuring out her routines for the upcoming season.

In her first season with the Tigers, Sheremeta quickly showed off her unmatched consistency. In just a few meets, she established herself at the 9.8 mark, a bar she rarely fails to reach. Although the NCAA ultimately canceled the 2020 postseason, Sheremeta’s sophomore campaign earned her spot in the lineup on bars, beam and floor.

Missouri didn’t start the 2021 season as it planned. On top of the season-ending injury to 2020 All-SEC freshman Helen Hu, Sheremeta was ruled out for the first meet of the season. The move was precautionary and stemmed from virus-like symptoms, but it threw off the junior’s rhythm just a little.

“It's definitely scary at first,” Sheremeta said. “Everybody’s a week ahead of you and you gotta catch up to everyone.”

But it didn’t take long for Sheremeta to find her stride. In her first event of the season, she scored a career-high 9.825 on the bars, and she stayed above her trademark 9.8 line on beam and floor in every meet until the last. She starred in Missouri’s first win against No. 19 Auburn, picking up career-highs of 9.9 on floor and an impressive 9.95 on beam.

Missouri’s head coach, Shannon Welker, competed at UIC as a gymnast for four years and earned NCAA All-American honors in 1996. After Sheremeta’s performance on February 12th, Welker had nothing but praise for the former Flame.

“As soon as she got back, she really has been on fire,” Welker said. “9.9 is a pretty darn good score and she had two of them tonight. That was really cool to see.”

As Sheremeta displayed unbelievable mental toughness at the start of the season and prowess on the beam event, strong character and irreplaceable coaching definitely came to light. In her mindset for the end of the season, it’s not hard to see how past experiences have helped form who she is today.

“Just look at the positives,” Sheremeta said. “Keep going and don't look back.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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