A muted fashion design element spoke volumes as to where the heads and hearts were of the four Alabama gymnasts who competed for individual titles during last week’s NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships at Duluth, Ga.
Encircling the black leotard was a prominent houndstooth ribbon. Smaller houndstooth ribbons were scattered on the mesh material along the upper torso and sleeves. And there, along the upper back, embroidered in jewels was the date 4-27-11.
Fifty-three people perished on that day when an EF-5 tornado roared through Tuscaloosa. It was part of a two-day 211-tornado outbreak that killed 340 people — 254 in Alabama alone — across the Southeast. The tribute by Alabama’s gymnasts was their way of saying they have not forgotten.
“It’s a very significant part of our lives — the tornado and April 27,” Ashley Priess said. “We wore it to remind us that we’re competing for something bigger than us. We represent a bigger population and a more significant cause when it really comes down to it. It is a constant reminder for us.”
The team wore the leotard for the first time in March. That’s when Alabama hosted Missouri, who it had just been announced was joining the Southeastern Conference. Once Alabama gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson noticed the Tigers on the schedule, the team decided to welcome them into the conference and celebrate relief efforts with a Tornado Relief Meet. It knew what Missouri was dealing with, too. On May 22, 116 people died in the Joplin, Mo., tornado, the nation’s deadliest in 60 years.
The year anniversary of the Tuscaloosa tornado is Friday. Those moments, when lives were changed forever, as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
Patterson’s plan that day initially was to oversee a voluntary team practice. But when she heard severe weather bearing down on the city, she cancelled it and advised her team to take shelter. She and her husband David, also a gymnastics team coach, closed their office and headed for home. At the last minute, though, they detoured to a friend’s home.
“They had like a basement area in it and we were there,” Patterson said. “They had a generator, so we never really lost television service. We were able to see what was going on. By the time the tornado landed it took me one hour and five minutes to communicate with every athlete on our team and to know they were still alive.
“My husband went over to the coliseum. Our daughter [Jordan], who plays on the softball team, they had gone from an outdoor practice for safety. Then he drove straight from there where we had eight freshmen living. In that hour and five minutes I was trying to make contact with them all. That was pretty heart-wrenching time. The cell service would go in and out. I’d get no cell service then I’d get 20 messages.”
All were accounted for but not before a close call for Geralen Stack-Eaton, this year’s beam champion. At the suggestion of teammate Marissa Gutierrez, Stack-Eaton moved from her third-floor apartment to the first floor where another teammate, Alyssa Chapman lived.
“It was cloudy and didn’t really look like it was going to storm,” Stack-Eaton said. “So I opened up the downstairs patio and I shut the door really fast. And I was like, ‘Oh, crap! It’s coming!’ Then like two seconds later everything started flying. Debris. We could see the tornado over McFarland Boulevard and the thing was huge. Then everything just stopped.
Who knows what could have been for Alabama junior outfielder Andrew Miller had he gone through with his plans to head back to the baseball field.
His team had finished its practice for the day while tornado sirens sounded repeatedly throughout it. No severe weather appeared imminent, and he and his teammates had become desensitized to the sirens as they had been activated a number of times over the past few weeks. They ignored it.
It was once he and his roommates reached home and were watching TV when they heard the tornado was about to touch down near Bryant-Denny Stadium. With so many false alarms, he had planned to join teammates back at the baseball field. But that’s when it was reported that the tornado was on the ground on their side of Bryant-Denny Stadium. That’s the last information they got as his home lost power.
The only way they knew anything was happening was to look outside. Miller glanced out his kitchen window and was a cloud of debris in the air. He called his teammates to the window. The storm was right there. They ran for the bathtub and the four of them covered their heads with a futon mattress.
“All you could hear was a train seeming like it was coming right through our house. You could hear stuff hitting our house. Trees falling on our house. It was a minute and a half, two minutes and it was gone.”
Miller looked outside and notices his teammate’s car, virtually untouched but had been moved.
“It was in the fork of a tree,” Miller said. “Then I looked at my truck and there were four trees in it and our whole neighborhood is destroyed. We have a bunch of elderly people who live around us and we checked on them to make sure they were OK.”
Knock on the door and teammates Jason Kennedy and Josh Rosecrans were there. They’d lost everything. This was especially problematic for Kennedy, a Canadian, and his passport was gone. After trying to help them sift through the wreckage for belongings, Miller and his roommate took them in temporarily.
“My roommate Trey [Pilkington] and I were sitting in the house and [the tornado] was brought up,” Miller said. “You think about how lucky we were that our house was not destroyed and that we were not one of the people missing or dead. We thank the Lord every day. I think about it every day I get in my new truck.
Just think about [Alabama football player] Carson Tinkler. I’m sure he wakes up every morning thinking, ‘Man, my girlfriend [Ashley Harrison] died. I thank the Lord every morning because we were safe and that could have happened to us. Makes you think of your priorities.”
Which is why Alabama decided the sit-down dinner planned for the team for winning the national title last year was shelved altogether. Instead Patterson rolled up her sleeves and opened her home to the displaced.
“Nobody was thinking about us winning the national championship,” Patterson said. “People had lost their lives. People had lost their homes. We were trying to put some of our athlete’s lives back together.
“So my husband and I kind of used our house as a venue for the first week where people just came and showered and ate. Left and went and tried to clean up debris and find what was left of their lives.”
Even she wasn’t as aware of the suffering still going on in Tuscaloosa. Her home of 19 years is only seven miles from campus. Her route going to work shows few signs of what happened. But it is on the way home where it hits home.
“The other way I drive coming home I go through Alberta City [in northeastern Tuscaloosa], and you go over the hill there are still homes that have trees laying through them and not much has been done,” Patterson said. “It’s easy to forget if you don’t see it every day. I made a pact that I would go one way to work and one way home so I was always reminded that people still need help and that there are still problems out there.
“There’s so much that has happened this year. I go back to when our football team first took the field in September and how uplifting it was for our whole community. I think back to those times and how different things could be.”
So does Priess, who has a tremendous appreciation for second chances after 2011. She was out the entire season because of injury and Alabama won the national title without her. She returned in 2012 to make huge contributions to this year’s national championship effort in Duluth, Ga., which she said would be her final collegiate performance. However, on Monday, she announced she would be coming back for a fifth year. So she, along with her teammates, will finally get to celebrate their titles.
“[Priess] has some a great distance both personally and as an athlete, after that humbling experience,” Patterson said. “There was a small part of me that wanted us to clinch the championship so that, hopefully, by the grace of God, there would not be another disaster this year and now truly celebrate the accomplishments of this group of women. We didn’t get to celebrate the last championship. This one we will.”