SEATTLE — The celebration for the University of Alabama gymnastics team did not last long. Ten days after winning an NCAA title, the Crimson Tide got an all-too-painful dose of reality when the campus and surrounding area in Tuscaloosa, Ala., got hit by one of the most devastating tornadoes in U.S. history.
Suddenly, the thrill of last year’s national title was replaced by a sobering tragedy.
“After 10 days, there was a period of time when I never even thought about winning the national championship,” said Alabama gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson, whose team begins a title defense at today’s NCAA Regional at the University of Washington.
Whereas this time last year Patterson was focused solely on her program’s quest for a national title, the April 27, 2011, tornado has put things in perspective.
Two Alabama gymnasts who have since graduated were caught up in the heart of the storm, escaping with their lives but losing almost all of their personal possessions. Everyone in Tuscaloosa on that day certainly won’t forget it.
“It was a pretty difficult time,” Patterson said. “After the tornado hit, it took me one hour, five minutes to make contact with all of my athletes. That was the longest one hour and five minutes of my life.”
The Alabama gymnastics team certainly hasn’t forgotten. The school held a Tornado Relief meet with Missouri earlier this season, at which the Crimson Tide gymnasts wore silver-studded leotards with 4-27-11 across the back.
Defending the national title hasn’t been as easy as expected — the Crimson Tide currently rank fourth in the country after finishing second to Florida at the Southeastern Conference meet — and yet Alabama is excited about making its 29th consecutive postseason appearance.
The defending national champs, along with LSU, Arizona, Iowa and Central Michigan and host UW, are all in town for today’s regional at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The top two teams move on to the NCAA meet in Duluth, Ga., along with the top two individuals in each event from teams that don’t qualify.
“For us,” Patterson said, “the road to Duluth goes through Seattle.”
Patterson added that, while she would love to win today’s team title, she’ll be just fine with second place as long as it keeps the season alive.
“Saturday night is all about qualifying for NCAAs,” she said. “That’s our goal.”
And no matter how this season concludes for the Crimson Tide, it’s a pretty safe bet that Alabama’s month will have a happier ending than 2011 did.