Northern Illinois’ first meet of the 2022 season wasn’t just its first meet back in front of fans since the COVID shutdown, it was its first time performing in front of 8,000-plus fans since the current seniors’ freshman year against Alabama.
“We did a really great job at handling the atmosphere. Not many meets we get into with that many fans, so that was super fun,” NIU head coach Sam Morreale said.
When Northern Illinois competed in this year’s season opener quad-meet against Florida, not only did the Huskies finish second in the meet ahead of Texas Woman’s and Rutgers, but sophomore Alyssa Al-Ashari also debuted a very special beam mount—one that she hasn’t competed since her elite days.
“That mount was a big thing being able to train in preseason, so I was really excited that I got to put it back in my routine,” she said. “That’s one of my favorite skills to compete, especially because when I land it, I’m already ready to go in my beam routine. I can tell that some people watch it differently. It’s really exciting that I was able to bring it back.”
The round-off layout step-out onto the beam is the kind of risk that is rarely taken in collegiate competitions. However, it paid off in the end as Al-Ashari scored a career-high 9.825 on the event.
“Since I’ve had more of an elite background, it’s helped me in college when there are so many fans around,” Al-Ashari said. “It’s helped me really focus in on my gymnastics no matter what is happening around me. It’s definitely helped me under pressure to be able to do my best.”
Morreale added, “With Alyssa and her elite background, she just has a lot of options. So the great thing is that we are able to pick and choose what she does and what she uses.”
Speaking of options, Al-Ashari had many when she was first being recruited and again after decommitting from Michigan. She ultimately discovered a home at Northern Illinois.
“It just ended up not being the place for me,” she said of Michigan. “It was NIU that ended up being a much better fit.”
So what was it that made NIU seal the deal? Al-Ashari said it was the culture of the team and the family bond, something that collegiate gymnastics is often known for providing.
“I think the biggest two things for me were the coaches and how much they care about you as a person and not just as a gymnast,” Al-Ashari said. “They really focus on academics, as well as making sure you are focusing on your classes and having a job after college. Also, the team culture is amazing, it’s something I’ve never seen before. Everybody just has each other’s back in and out of the gym, and that’s something I really wanted in college.”
College has not only improved her gymnastics, but it has also improved her mental habits in the gym, too. “My gymnastics has become way more consistent, not just at competitions but in practice. I go in with every single turn knowing I am going to hit this routine, hit this skill or hit this turn and just focus on cleaning up on details. I don’t have as hard of skills or as hard of routines as I had in the past. especially at elite. The biggest thing is consistency and confidence; those have really changed going into the collegiate level.”
Al-Ashari has had a successful collegiate career so far, becoming a staple in the bars and beam lineups for the Huskies. Her 9.825 beam career-high against Florida is the highest beam score so far by a Huskie this season, and her bars are steady as well. As for the other two events, Morreale and Al-Ashari are on the same page when they say maybe not this season, but for the future, things are looking up.
“She is a bars and beam stud. Alyssa’s got quality skills on all four events so [in the preseason] she was actually moving herself into the mix on the other two as well,” Morreale said. “She does train the other things, and she’ll keep training them, but moving into her junior or senior year, yes, the hope would be to slide her into all-around.”
“I’m mostly focusing on bars and beam. Potentially I might train [on vault and floor] a little more throughout the rest of the season. We just have to wait and see,” Al-Ashari added.
Although the future might contain the all-around, Al-Ashari says her post-graduation plans include travel nursing or perhaps grad school to become a nurse practitioner. But in the meantime, one thing that is certain is her love for Northern Illinois.
“College gymnastics, especially at NIU, is amazing—it is the best thing I could ever ask for,” she said. “It makes me so happy to come into the gym and practice every day because I just love it. I am very happy where I am right now.”
Article by Carolyn Lien
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