It could be over and out for UIC gymnastics programs
It was a bit of a recruiting coup for the University of Illinois-Chicago to get Alisa Sheremeta last year.
Sheremeta, from Circleville, New York, was one of the top Junior Olympic gymnasts in the country as a high school senior. She had qualified for the Junior Olympics five times.
"It was fantastic for us to get Alisa as a recruit," UIC women's gymnastics coach Peter Jansson said. "We got her because we have been very successful, and when she came here for her visit, she really liked our program and the school and she liked the city.
"Both of her parents were on the Ukraine Olympic (gymnastics) team and they loved Ukraine Village in the city. All of it was a big attraction for her."
Sheremeta, a freshman gymnast at UIC, has been as good as advertised. This week, the rookie won her second Midwest Independent Conference Newcomer of the Week award. She has been a vital part of UIC's ascension to first place in the conference standings, its 8-3 record and its top 30 ranking out of 82 teams in the country.
Sheremeta has been loving her first year at UIC.
And yet, she soon may leave. Forever.
Shortly after Sheremeta and two other freshmen gymnasts arrived on campus in the fall, UIC announced it would be discontinuing both the men's and women's gymnastics programs at the conclusion of the 2018-19 school year.
Rising costs of funding collegiate athletics was a reason cited by UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis. Another possible issue is UIC's desire to have all of its sports programs compete in the Horizon League. And since the Horizon League doesn't include gymnastics, the UIC gymnastics teams have had to compete in the Midwest Independent Conference.
"It is not uncommon for schools to have teams competing in different conferences, depending on the sport," Jansson said. "It's hard to understand why this would have to be (an issue). I have a hard time believing that a label is more important than measurable quality and success of a program."
This entire situation is still hard for those closest to it to believe.
In September, the initial announcement about the fate of UIC gymnastics rocked the university, both programs, the coaches, the athletes and many alums across the country who care about the programs and have helped build them into consistently two of the best in the country.
Efforts have been made since then to save the programs through protests and petitions and letters that have totaled around 20,000 strong. There's also a hashtag on Twitter to comment about the situation: #flipthedecision. And there have been inquiries by alums into fundraising for the programs which, ironically, seem to operate on the very low side of collegiate athletics with the women getting only seven full scholarships and the men getting none.
But while the UIC administration has indicated behind the scenes the door is not completely closed to reconsideration, optimism for an 11th-hour reprieve for the programs is dwindling and that leaves young gymnasts at UIC like Sheremeta at a crossroads.
If the programs do indeed disband, UIC has promised to honor the entirety of all scholarships, which means Sheremeta could get her scholarship at UIC for the next there years.
However, that also means that if the programs disband and Sheremeta wants to stay at UIC, the university she picked above all others just one year ago, she would never get to compete in gymnastics at the collegiate level again.
"It's an awful feeling for Alisa and all of our kids," Jansson said. "To know that UIC as a school sold her on the idea of this is where she could have her gymnastics career and then to have that taken away is heart-wrenching. This is a big part of her identity. This makes it so hard for her and for all of our kids."
And yet, for now, the season goes on, almost as if this big dark cloud hanging over the programs doesn't exist.
The gymnasts and coaches have tried to focus on what it right in front of them, and that is the season, which happens to be going very well, especially for the women.
If the NCAA national meet was to happen right now, UIC would qualify for the 36-team field.
"One of the hardest things we've had to do as coaches has been to tell our kids we have to go out and make the best of what we have and enjoy what time we do have left and try not to worry about everything else," Jansson said. "You know that weighs on them. It plays with your mind.
"Our kids feel like they are doing exactly what they should be doing. They are performing well, they are doing well in school, they are representing the university well, and yet somehow, that's not good enough. That's difficult."
What will also be difficult is the end of this season, which is rapidly approaching. The women's last home meet and Senior Day is noon Feb. 24 against Northern Illinois.
"There's no doubt that will be a very emotional meet because we don't know what will happen after that. It could be our last home meet ever," Jansson said. "It's just sad. I don't know how it is better for fewer people to have the experience of college athletics than more. I don't know how it's better for fewer people to have their lives changed and to have the chance to be better people through college athletics than more.
"That's where I get stuck. That's what I don't understand."
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