April 3, 2013
In Ashley Priess' very first meet as a freshman on the Alabama gymnastics team, she came up last for the Crimson Tide having to hit her balance beam routine on the road, in the Southeastern Conference, to secure Alabama's win. It was no ordinary SEC meet either, it was Alabama-Auburn and if Priess didn't hit her routine, the Tide's decades long win streak against the Tigers would come to a screeching halt.
Priess walked up to the beam, said a little prayer putting it all in God's hands, and proceeded to knock out a 9.9, the first of what would become a long line of clutch performances during her career, and securing the Tide's win.
Flash forward five years. Ashley Priess is in her very last regular-season road meet. She is up last for the Tide having to hit her balance beam routine in yet another SEC competition, to secure Alabama's win. It's no ordinary meet either, it's a "pink" meet, and the Tide is undefeated in breast cancer awareness meets. If Priess doesn't hit her routine, that streak is snapped.
Priess walked up to the beam, said a little prayer putting it all in God's hands, and proceeded to knock out a 9.95, the latest in a long string of clutch performances, securing the Tide's win.
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That's not to say that Priess' five-year journey has always been easy, but she wouldn't trade it for the world.
"I would say it's far beyond the career I expected," Priess said. "I remember my freshman year, my body being really sore and having a lot of pain and just thinking: `Okay, let me just try and make it through one season. If my back can handle one season of gymnastics, then we'll try and reevaluate next year.' I remember being not that optimistic about being able to last all four years."
She had known coming to Alabama that it was going to be a tough road. Her back had given her so much trouble that she pulled out of the 2008 Olympic Trials knowing that if she made that journey, her collegiate career would be in jeopardy. So she put aside her Olympic dreams to embrace an even older dream of competing at the collegiate level.
Working with coaches Sarah and David Patterson and the entire Alabama staff, the goal of making it through one year extended through to a five-year career.
"It's been amazing year after year," Priess said. "I've been blown away with what my body has been capable of doing with the right management, the right training and the right resources."
After sitting out the 2011 season following preseason surgery on both ankles, she came roaring back in 2012, clinching Alabama's sixth NCAA Championship in what has become the most familiar of scenarios for Crimson Tide fans - Ashley Priess, up last, on the balance beam, with a chance to win it all. She closed out 2012 and her first senior season with a 9.95, edging the Florida Gators for the national championship.
She could have closed it out there, a fairytale ending to her career. Except ... she wasn't quite done with that career just yet. So she came back for a fifth year, only the second time that's happened in Alabama gymnastics' storied history.
"It was absolutely worth coming back," Priess said recently with a truly contented smile.
Now that her long journey as a gymnast is finally and truly winding down, what thoughts come to mind?
"At this point, it blows my mind that I can still do gymnastics," Priess said. "For the past two years, I've woken up in the morning and said, `It's not possible - there's no way I'm flipping today.' And I get to the gym and somehow, someway it just clicks together and happens and it's just mind-blowing to me. I get to the end of the day and just think, `Wow. Is this just a result of so many years of hard work or is God just kind of taking over my body - what is it?'"
That feeling of accomplishment that comes from extending her career day-by-day, week-by-week is coupled with the knowledge that there are few people in the world who can soar like a gymnast.
"There are only a select few people that are able to fly through the air on bars and catch it again," Priess said. "It's just such a rewarding feeling to get to the end of a really hard day and be like, `Wow, look what I just did.' So I think I'm going to miss the actual act of doing gymnastics."
Even more than that sense of flight, what she'll miss the most about a career that has taken her around the country and around the world comes down to people.
"More than anything, I'll just miss the relationships and the fun times with the people in my life," Priess said. "I'm probably never going to be in a situation for the rest of my life where I have so many like-minded, cool individuals around me. To have that common bond, that sisterhood - it will probably never be there again. So I'm definitely trying to embrace that."