DES MOINES, Iowa — This was supposed to be a weekend of celebration for the Alabama track and field program at the Drake Relays, with Tide men’s coach Harvey Glance and women’s coach Sandy Fowler getting inducted into the meet’s Hall of Fame.
That’s proven to be a major challenge after dozens of tornadoes swept across the South in recent days, killing about 300 people, mainly in Alabama.
Now the Tide are competing in Des Moines with heavy hearts, struggling to focus on their events while thinking about those in storm-ravaged Tuscaloosa and throughout the region.
“It’s hard to focus on this when you known there’s so many people without anything right now,” Alabama sophomore Bekah Hoppis said while fighting back tears.
The Tide was set to send 41 male and female athletes to the Drake Relays, one of the nation’s most prestigious track and field meets. More than half of Alabama’s athletes stayed behind to look after friends, family and teammates affected by the disaster.
Glance, a three-time Olympic sprinter who said his induction into the Drake Relays Hall of Fame was “bittersweet” because of all that’s happened, said he left it up to his athletes to decide whether they wanted to make the trip.
One of those who couldn’t make it to Des Moines was sophomore sprinter Joel Lynch, who saw his apartment blown away by a tornado and barely made it out alive.
“I think the guys need some kind of relief themselves. It’s their escape. This is one positive thing they know they’ve got going on in their life,” Glance said. “It’s going to be very difficult for them to compete. They know that, but this is what they wanted to do.”
Only 11 of Alabama’s 25 female athletes made the trip, Fowler said.
Among them was Hoppis, who doesn’t have a home to go back to.
Hoppis lives with her parents in Tuscaloosa, and the storms knocked over a tree that landed on her house. Her family was staying with friends while Hoppis competed in the javelin over 800 miles away.
“There’s nothing I can do there, because we’re without power,” Hoppis said.
For others who reached Des Moines, the trip was a struggle of its own.
Assistant coach Joe Walker and junior Carison Kemei were set to take off from Birmingham on Wednesday when heavy rain started pelting their plane. He and the other passengers were quickly sent to a shelter to wait out the storms, and Walker and Kemei got on the last flight out of Birmingham.
After a night in Memphis and a stop in Minneapolis, Walker and Kemei made it to Des Moines on Thursday. Kemei was supposed to race Thursday night, but his luggage didn’t make it time.
Alabama freshman Kamal Fuller did run Friday morning, but he clipped a hurdle during a preliminary heat of the 110-meter hurdles and failed to finish the race.
That was far from the most important dash Fuller made this week.
Fuller was in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday when he and his roommate saw a vicious tornado blowing through town and fled downstairs to safety. A day later, Fuller was in Des Moines trying to get mentally ready to compete in one of the nation’s most prestigious meets.
“You’ve just got to be a competitor. They call it ‘sprinter memory,”’ Fuller said.
Fowler said that some of her athletes urged the Tide to make the long trip to Iowa because it would provide them with a sense of normalcy that was stripped from them at a moment’s notice.
“The Tuscaloosa community and the student-athletes of the university are strong and I think they’re going to end up being just fine throughout all this. But it’s going to take time,” Fowler said.