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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Alyssa Al-Ashari’s ascent to bar and beam stardom

How a former Big Ten commit found her way to the mid-majors
Totus Tuus Keely
NIU senior gymnast Alyssa Al-Ashari salutes at the end of her bars routine in the second rotation of the Beauty and the Beast Meet on Feb. 9 at the Convocation Center. Al-Ashari serves as one of the Huskies’ four team captains while being a consistent standout on the uneven parallel bars and the balance beam. (Totus Tuus Keely | Northern Star)

Every routine for Alyssa Al-Ashari starts the same way.

Once the shamrock green flag waves from the nearby judges table, she gives her opening salute, and takes a deep breath in.

As she expels the air from her lungs, the noise around her fades to silence. Her mind becomes a vacuum devoid of distraction.

“I don’t hear a single thing,” Al-Ashari said. “I’ll see things, but if somebody tells me there was a song playing during my routine, I do not hear it at all, and I think it’s just through years of competitions, my brain learned how to tune out the noise.”

It was a perfect storm that brought her to us.

— NIU gymnastics head coach Sam Morreale

She can’t pinpoint exactly when this habit started, or whether it was intentional or not. But she’s certain about one thing: it’s helped her remain focused in the limelight throughout an illustrious gymnastics career whose first chapter lies in Michigan’s state capital.

Born and raised in Lansing, Michigan, as the youngest of Christie and David Al-Ashari’s six children, Alyssa was 3 years old when she got her first taste of gymnastics. 

Her parents entered her into recreational classes at Gedderts’ Twistars USA Gymnastics Club in nearby Dimondale, just as they did with her older sisters Amy and Katie before her.

Within the gym’s walls, Al-Ashari discovered her affinity for the two events that would become her staples on the sport’s grandest stages – the uneven parallel bars and the balance beam.


“I’ve never been the most powerful gymnast,” Al-Ashari said. “I kind of gravitated towards (bars and beam) because you didn’t need power for those events. You just need technique, and I knew that if I worked hard enough, and I focused on my technique enough, I’d be able to do it, regardless of how powerful I am.”

Al-Ashari recalled one of her earliest experiences on the bars when she was learning the tuck flyaway – or a single backflip off the bars in layman’s terms. She wasn’t any good at the skill, nor was she afraid of it. Al-Ashari couldn’t help but relish in her newfound ability to soar without wings.

“It was just so fun,” Al-Ashari said. “I’d never done that before. You’re just flying through the air. You never get to do that, even when you’re at home doing cartwheels or something. You never get that feeling unless you’re on the bars.”

Her love for the beam, on the other hand, was born out of ability. Save for a standing back tuck – a move she swears she’ll never try again on beam, Al-Ashari could execute any skill asked of her on the apparatus.

“They would just tell me to try a skill, and it would just click with me,” Al-Ashari said. “Not that I didn’t work hard, but it came much easier to me than the other three (events).”


With each rep, Al-Ashari gained more confidence. That confidence turned into talent, and that talent turned into results.

By the time she was 13 years old, Al-Ashari reached one of the sport’s largest stages at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Junior Olympic National Championships. She went on to take home the bars and the all-around titles, beating out the other 55 competitors in the Junior A division.

“That’s what your goal is before you go to college, is to win nationals,” Al-Ashari said. “And to be able to do that when I was so young was definitely a confidence booster, and helped me in searching for colleges because they knew my name.”

By her freshman year of high school, one NCAA blue blood program not only knew Al-Ashari’s name, but wanted to add it to their ranks.

The University of Michigan came calling in September 2016, when they extended Al-Ashari a full-ride scholarship offer. A powerhouse program in the Big Ten Conference, Michigan is one of only seven Division I programs to have won an NCAA championship, and Al-Ashari was destined to contribute to that legacy.

Seven-and-a-half years after receiving her offer, Al-Ashari is more than halfway through the final season of a decorated career – with NIU’s gymnastics team.

But how does a highly-touted Level 10 recruit like Al-Ashari, who once held the golden ticket to one of college gymnastics’ top squads, end up at a mid-major school like NIU?

“She’d been somebody that, honestly, I didn’t think we had a chance to get based on her ability level and what her choices were going to be,” said NIU gymnastics head coach Sam Morreale. “It was a perfect storm that kind of brought her to us.”


Al-Ashari’s postsecondary plans to become a Wolverine fell through in August 2019 when Michigan pulled her scholarship funding.

“She was a little nicked up and injured, and that, I feel, is why that other scholarship didn’t pan out,” Morreale said.

When Kathryn Geddert, the owner and head beam coach at Twistars, approached Morreale and associate head coach Dawnita Teague about Al-Ashari’s interest in NIU, Morreale acted swiftly to bring the lifelong Michigander to DeKalb.

“At that point, we had a scholarship available, and I jumped all over that, just because I knew what kind of an athlete she was,” Morreale said.

Before long, Al-Ashari was in DeKalb visiting NIU’s campus.

“I kind of knew right when I visited here mid-August (2019) that this is where I wanted to go, and I really liked it,” Al-Ashari said. “It felt like home.”

Morreale offered Al-Ashari a scholarship during her visit, and she was ready to accept, but Morreale insisted she take some time to ponder her decision. 

“Because she had had a big offer, I knew how good she was,” Morreale said. “I wanted her to be sure she wanted to be a Huskie, and that she wanted to come to us.”

Al-Ashari obliged, but insisted “there wasn’t much to think about.” She waited about two weeks before calling Morreale to accept her offer and become an NIU Huskie.


Cut to 2024, Al-Ashari is held in high regard by both her teammates and her coaches. So much so that she was unanimously voted to be one of NIU’s four team captains this season.

“Even when she wasn’t a captain, she’s a leader,” Morreale said. “She’s a kid who can say what needs to be said to help her team, but then she’s also a kid who just does the work, so she leads by example. She’s truly the best of both worlds with that kind of thing.”

Al-Ashari’s welcoming personality and dedication to her craft have helped her foster strong bonds with her teammates, even those like junior Alana Anderson who don’t compete on the same events.

“Ever since I’ve gotten closer with her, I’ve noticed a strong bond,” Anderson said. “When we work together, we get things done. She just makes me feel a lot more confident. The way she cheers for everyone is very welcoming.”

Anderson also described Al-Ashari as someone who’s dedicated.

“When she sets her mind to one thing, she gets that done,” Anderson said.


NIU then-junior gymnast Alyssa Al-Ashari strikes a pose on beam during the second rotation of the 2023 NCAA Denver Regional on March 31, 2023, at Magness Arena in Denver, Colorado. Al-Ashari scored a 9.925 for her routine, the highest mark by a Huskie on beam in NCAA regional competition. (Courtesy of Paul Sheperdson)

This season, Al-Ashari has dedicated her swan song to leading the Huskies to NCAA regionals in March.

For a team to advance to NCAA regionals, it must reside among the country’s top 36 teams based on National Qualifying Score. NQS is calculated by taking a team’s top six scores from the season, three of which must be from away meets, deducting the highest score and averaging the remaining five.

NIU has yet to make it to regionals as a team in Al-Ashari’s lifetime, or that of any gymnast on the team’s roster. The team’s latest appearance dates back to 1995. Al-Ashari’s dates back one season when, in 2023, she became the first NIU gymnast to qualify on both bars and beam in the same year.

She, along with then-senior Natalie Hamp and then-sophomore Emmalise Nock, made the mile-high journey to Denver, Colorado, to compete as individuals at the 2023 Denver Regional. Al-Ashari set a new program record on her beam routine with a score of 9.925, the best mark by a Huskie on beam in regional competition.


As can be expected, a career with as much excitement as Al-Ashari’s doesn’t come without the juggling act required of student-athletes. Day in and day out, Al-Ashari is charged with not only captaining an NCAA Division I gymnastics squad, but also with meeting – and exceeding – the demands of NIU’s nursing program, where a 93% is worth an A and a 76% is a failing score.

Through it all, Al-Ashari’s faith has helped her remain balanced. It’s allowed her to enjoy her gymnastics experience and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the pressure of perfection – in a sport where the goal is perfection.

Now on the threshold of graduation with her Bachelor of Science in nursing, Al-Ashari doesn’t hold a regret about the twists and turns in her career that brought her where she is today.

“I can see now that everything happens for a reason,” Al-Ashari said. “I can see all of the things leading up to this that happened, that I didn’t know why it happened. It kind of sucked in the moment, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. I’m so glad I came here (to NIU), and I’m just so thankful that this is where I’m at.”

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