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Flipping forward

When Lemiya Shaat, 18, learned that her mentor, Tony Simeti, would be closing the doors to his gymnastics studio for good, she saw a new one open.

The Kensington High School alumna sprung into action, with the help of Simeti and her mother, and plans to open her own studio, Simeti’s Gymnastics Academy, on Jan. 2 in Juniata.

While starting a business might be an arduous task, add being a full-time student, a part-time job and a pandemic, and the odds may seem insurmountable.

“Right now, I’m working at a pizzeria delivering pizza, but it’s about 45 hours a week, and on top of that, I’m doing 16 credits in college. And, it’s just a lot to juggle,” Shaat said. “With a gymnastics studio, I can get my school work done during the day, and teach at night. And, it’s something I love to do, so it won’t seem like work.”

Shaat is taking everything in stride, being no stranger to overcoming obstacles.

In second grade, Shaat’s family home in Juniata burned down.

“We were kind of all over the place. We were in the Northeast, Kensington, up near the Boulevard,” she said. “From a very young age, I was taught education is something you prioritize. So when I lost everything in this fire, I then realized material things don’t mean anything. But, education and moving up in life is what I have to focus on.”

Shaat took the experience and used it to drive her future success, earning scholarships to Temple University, where she is studying psychology, and on the brink of opening her gymnastics studio in a rented space at 3525 I St.

Shaat got her start at gymnastics when she was about 3 at a community-based gymnastics class.

When she was 12, Shaat asked her mom to enroll her in classes as a Christmas present.

After scouring the internet for a reasonably priced program, Shaat came across the Tony Simeti School of Gymnastics in Tacony, and the rest is history.

Shaat was placed in an intermediate class.

“We had an immediate connection. We just really hit it off. I did gymnastics for about a year or so, and then I got involved with helping him with the smaller classes because I just love being in that atmosphere,” she said. “I would be his assistant, and we would work with each other and that is what we did until coronavirus happened.”

Simeti did not dice words when it came to his star student.

“She showed a good interest in gymnastics, but what was exceptional about her is that she would come in and help me with my beginner class and stay for her class,” he said. “And, I saw this interest and desire and it just went from there.”

Simeti’s studio has been closed for about eight months, ever since the City of Philadelphia’s initial stay-at-home mandate in March.

“I had all of this equipment I was either going to try and sell or give away. My wife and I made a decision that this young girl was worthy of me giving her my gym,” he said. “It’s because of her desire.”

Simeti feels fortunate to pass on an opportunity once afforded to him.

“This is pretty much how I got started. I had someone see me and give me an opportunity, the Turner Organization. They pretty much sponsored my program here in Philly for 30 years,” he said. “I was honored to give her my equipment.” 

Shaat is still audibly in shock when she speaks about her mentor’s altruism.

“He very generously gave me all his equipment,” Shaat said. “A lot of his stories and the way he teaches rubbed off on me. He gave his business to me, and I feel like I hit the lottery.”

Hence, the studio being named in his honor.

For Simeti, closing his own studio is just the beginning of a new chapter.

“It’s unbelievably rewarding to know the way I teach is going to be carried on. I have a love for this sport,” he said. “And, I’ve had plenty of students like Lemiya over the years who have helped out. To find someone like Lemiya and offer her something like this, it was a great feeling knowing it was going to continue.”

Like her mentor, Shaat believes in the importance of giving back.

Throughout high school, she helped out with students participating in the autistic support gym class at her school.

“It was really fun getting to know the kids over the years. It taught me how to have patience and help [the students] grow,” she said.

Shaat’s gym teacher approached her about helping to know her history: Her 20-year-old sister, Tahani, is autistic.

Shaat plans to continue to serve the special-needs community at her own studio, offering a special-needs beginner class.

When the studio opens on Jan. 2, precautions following COVID-19 guidelines will be in place, including limited class sizes, hand sanitizing stations, temperature checks, cleaning in between classes and mask requirements.

Available classes include a Mommy and Me class, a beginners’ class, an intermediate class, an advanced class and a special-needs class.

Enrollment in each class will be capped at 10 participants. Two classes of each level will be offered,

Shaat will be the sole instructor for now, but she hopes to bring on more instructors as the studio grows.

Shaat’s mother will serve as the manager, and Tahani will run a snack stand at the studio.

And, her mentor, Simeti, is already talking about making guest appearances. 

“I’d like to even teach one class a week at her new studio,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to the transition.”

Shaat is eager to get moving.

“I just want to bring some fun back into the community. There’s not really a lot of things for kids to do nowadays. And, I want to pull kids from the screens and actually get them up and get them moving,” Shaat said. 

For more details about Simeti’s Gymnastics Academy, visit www.simetisgymnasticsacademy.com

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