After watching Burt Lancaster do a back somersault to escape pirates, 10-year-old Tony Simeti decided to be a gymnast. The movie inspired him to launch himself off trees, which inspired neighbors to call his mother and express concern. He developed a habit of sneaking into his Lincoln High School’s gym to use the mats, which graduated into sneaking a peek at the nearby Riddle gym. Inside, he said, Simeti saw a gym team practicing.
“They were fully dressed in their white pants and beautiful shirts,” Simeti said. “They dragged me in on my hands and knees and asked me if I wanted to be a part of this.”
By 10th grade, he was teaching gymnastics. He opened the Tony Simeti School of Gymnastics in 1974, teaching until COVID-19 hit. Now, Simeti has passed his equipment along to his student, Lemiya Shaat, who is reopening his gymnastics school in the St. Leo school building this fall.
Mirroring Simeti’s drive, Shaat decided at 12 years old that she wanted to be a gymnast. She found the Tony Simeti school online herself and got to work convincing her mom.
“I did an internet search and found the prices, when the classes were held, and who to call and I presented it to [my mom] in a PowerPoint,” said Shaat.
Shaat, now 19, remembers being nervous when she first started at the gym.
“I was so shy, and I didn’t want my mom to leave the classroom. But a year into it, I was teaching the beginner classes alongside Tony … it was a good confidence booster,” she said.
Simeti and Shaat grew close. He offered to give her lessons in exchange for her help around the gym, a system Simeti offered to talented and driven students.
“She kinda became Tony’s protege,” recalls Lisa Shaat, Lemiya’s mother.
When COVID struck, Simeti, now in his 80s, was unable to teach. According to Simeti, the owners of the building where his gym was located were patient and understanding about the financial circumstances, but after a year, they told Simeti that they needed to use the building.
“I cried about that situation so many times, it was unreal,” he said.
That was when Simeti and his wife thought of giving the equipment to Shaat. He first called Lisa to discuss the possibility. Simeti said he learned then that Shaat wanted to open a gym of her own.
“When I presented this offer, her mother started crying,” Simeti said. “This was her dream.”
Shaat is studying psychology at Temple University. Her goal is to get a doctorate in clinical psychology and work with children. Shaat says that the clinical work would be her 9-5, and teaching gymnastics would be her passion project.
“Gymnastics means a lot to me,” Shaat said. “Gymnasts are good all-around athletes, good at running, endurance, strength, flexibility. Gymnastics has made me more confident, and I love working with children. The children love me,” Shaat said.
Shaat, with the help of her family, opened the gym in Kensington, but now must move due to space and logistical issues.
The gym will reopen close to home at St. Leo. For Simeti, this is quite fitting. His wife went to St. Leo, and he and his wife got married there.
Simeti says he will probably stop by and help sometimes, because teaching is a lifelong endeavor.
“When you’re giving a child information about their body and how to use it, it’s not just for today and tomorrow, it’s forever,” Simeti said. “When you’re a teacher, you don’t stop teaching just because you don’t have a gym.”
Shaat hopes to create an all-inclusive gym and carry on Simeti’s legacy.
“We take all abilities, all ages, we have kids from 2 years old to 18, we have a ton of ADD kids, we take all kinds of kids,” said Shaat.
Janae Dales says that her 5-year-old daughter, Devyn, has found a space for healthy growth at the gym. Devyn, affectionately nicknamed Demante by Shaat and the other students, started in March.
“Her spending a lot of time with coach opened her up more and made her more of a people person,” Dales said. “I’m excited for them to have a new gym. I’m happy to see them grow. It’s important to me.”
As for Simeti, he knows that his gym is in good hands.
“I am so happy that I can now present this to Lemiya, this beautiful lady who took over my gym for me,” Simeti said. “Ain’t nothing gonna stop her.”
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