The heart of a champion
Alabama's Priess overcomes injuries to lead Crimson Tide to title
DULUTH, Ga. -- In the end, it was Ashley Priess’ effort on the beam that left Alabama beaming. Her 9.950 on the last event was enough to overtake Florida and send the Crimson Tide to their second consecutive NCAA title on Saturday evening.
It was a special night for a lady who over the past two years went from spectator to spectacular.
Priess, competing in the vault competition in the Super Six at the 2010 nationals, fell during her landing and ripped ligaments from the bone while she broke her right ankle. After that was repaired, during the fall of 2010, she rolled her left ankle. The damage was so severe she required ligament reconstruction. While the doctors were performing surgery, they also repaired a toe tendon injured in a freak accident at school. So Priess, an All-American since she arrived on campus, was done for the year.
Alabama did not miss a beat. It claimed the 2011 title with Priess in the stands as its No. 1 fan.
“That was tough,” Priess said. “My whole freshman and sophomore years I competed in four events every meet. It was a very different experience sitting on the sidelines.
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“It was extremely humbling, but I was so proud at the same time. The team battled that adversity of me not being able to contribute at all. I think that instilled a lot of confidence in our team. I think the two years built on each other.”
One could point to her injury helping build depth for Alabama, but coach Sarah Patterson would have much rather have won last year with her than without.
“Without a doubt, you are one of the top two gymnasts on the team, and when your team wins without you, it hurts,” Patterson said. “I knew that. We used the fall to lift her up and she responded. She was on fire the entire season.”
A season that almost didn’t happen. Priess struggled with what was ahead of her. The thought of rehabilitating another ankle injury weighed on her heavily. She questioned whether she was supposed to come back. She questioned if the injuries meant this was the end for her career.
“I didn’t know if I needed to take a medical [redshirt] or something because I had so far to go, and so much rehab to overcome,” Priess said. “I’m a really strong believer and I felt the Holy Spirit telling me my time’s not up yet and I still have more to do. So at the end of last year I really busted but the whole summer to rehab. Slowly but surely it came back.
“When I came back, I said I really just wanted to enjoy this year and contribute as much as I can. The coaches were incredible at preserving me and making sure I stayed health. Week in and week out I kept getting better and better. I think I am healthier now than I have been in four or five years.”
Alabama’s season came down to Priess. If it was going to win, Alabama needed to be great on beam to get past Florida. As it was the Crimson Tide’s two super seniors, Priess and Geralen Stack-Eaton would be the last two on beam. Stack-Eaton’s 9.875 put them within striking distance. Then it was Priess’ turn, who would be going almost head-to-head with Florida’s Kytra Hunter, their last performer on floor who was competing mere feet away.
“I immediately had déjà vu back to Geralen and my first meet as a freshman,” Priess said. “It was Alabama vs. Auburn. It came down to beam and Ger and I were fifth and sixth and we’d just had a fall and I think we won by .025 that year.
“So, right after we finished beam tonight, the same thing happened at Auburn. Right before the two of us went we said a little prayer and made a pact that we were going to do this. We did the same thing [Saturday].”
Hunter finished with her usual solid performance and a 9.925. Priess’ 9.950 was even better and it put Alabama over the top.
“There’s a lot of things that you think about [during a competition],” Patterson said. “But as it was coming down to the end, I knew that Kytra Hunter was going up on floor, and Ashley Priess was going on the balance beam, and I knew it came down to that routine.
“This is the young woman that sat in the stands with two busted ankles, that wasn’t on the floor with us. One of our best team members, one of the best gymnasts we’ve ever had and she’s sitting in the stands. It was humbling for her because we won the championship without her. And yet to have her step in this year and lead with Geralen. I couldn’t be more proud of that moment. I thought last year was great, but for a lot of different reasons, this one was better.”