‘Built by Bama’: Why three local high school athletes stayed in Tuscaloosa

Martha Glen Sease, Contributing Writer

The University of Alabama is known for its athletic programs. For Rebecca Billman, Tommy Danner and Haleigh Sanders, there was another reason for their college decisions: They’re all from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“It was a very exciting time and a great honor to be able to tell [my friends and family] that I had decided to run for a DI school in the SEC,” said Rebecca Billman, a member of the cross country team and a distance runner for the track and field program.

Rebecca Billman is entering her junior year with the cross country and track and field programs. Billman, who graduated from American Christian Academy in Tuscaloosa, is on the pre-med track.

“The University of Alabama offered a lot of great opportunities in the field of biology and also boasted a very high medical school acceptance,” Billman said. “Academics are very important.”

Billman had a decorated high school running career while at ACA. She was a member of five outdoor track and field state championship teams and part of one state championship cross country squad. She was a two-time runner-up in the Alabama 3A state cross country championships, and she won many awards in indoor track and field. Her friends and teammates were “extremely proud and supportive” when she committed to The University of Alabama.

Now, she’s setting new personal records and helping the Crimson Tide women’s cross country team start strong in its 2021 season, all while spending time close to home with her family.

“I am very close to my family and did not want to rush into living away from home,” she said. 

Her mindset is changing as she nears medical school and considers out-of-state options, but she said she has enjoyed being able to celebrate her successes as an athlete for The University of Alabama with her friends and family alongside her. 

Billman debuted as a college athlete in the 2018 cross country season at the Mississippi College Season Opener. She finished 32nd with a 5K time of 20:50.77, a personal record at the time. However, her collegiate athletics career was set back due to health issues, and she did not compete for the University again until the 2021 outdoor track and field season.

At the Crimson Tide Invitational in April, she competed in the 1500-meter run and set another personal record of 5:04.77 in this race. She said that it’s one of her favorite meets to compete in and that having her family there to watch her made it that much more special.

Billman believes that she has gained self-confidence and perspective on her sport through her undergraduate years. She credits being close to home with helping her through this process.

“I went through a very hard period where I thought I might not be able to run again, much less compete. Because of this adversity and the support of the team and our coaches, I found a new passion for distance running,” she said.

Billman said that without her family’s proximity and support, she is not sure she would have been able to grow as a distance runner. Now, two races into her junior season, Billman set a new 5K personal record of 18:56.00 and helped the women’s cross country team finish third in the North Alabama Showcase on Friday, Sept. 17.

Tommy Danner is entering his freshman season as a thrower and is a third-generation athlete for Alabama track and field.

“It just felt right for me,” Danner said. 

Danner’s grandfather was All-SEC in discus in the 1950s, in addition to competing as a guard on the football team and throwing shot put for the track team. Danner’s father threw shot put and discus at the University in the 1980s, and his great-grandfather was a coach on the track team through the 1950s and ’60s.

“Our family has a long history here,” Danner said. “It means a lot to be able to follow in their footsteps and to be able to compete at this level.”

Danner set his intentions to compete for the University of Alabama track and field program in middle school. When Danner announced he would be joining what is believed to be the largest incoming class in the program’s history — 51 athletes — his friends congratulated him on reaching that goal.

Danner said he is honored to compete for the school he grew up a mile down the road from. To him, “Alabama is home.” He used to walk to football games every Saturday and has been surrounded by a community of Alabama fans supporting him all his life. 

“A lot of people supported me growing up to get where I am, and now, I feel like I am representing the town and those who supported me,” Danner said.   

Danner said he felt it important to find a school close to home when he was looking at colleges. 

“I didn’t really want to be far from my family,” he said. 

Though he’s yet to start competition in his freshman season, he believes living close to home has benefited him in his transition to college athletics. 

“Whenever I need help or guidance, I go home and talk to my parents,” he said. “They are my biggest supporters, and that is something that helps me work harder because I don’t want to let them down.”

Danner is ready to work hard and constantly strives to improve, as he knows the competition in the SEC is steep. “Competing for the SEC is a great privilege and honor; there is nowhere I’d rather be. You want to compete with the very best, and I will do that here.”

He said he knows the people here in his hometown are in his corner, and he doesn’t intend to forget about that.

Haleigh Sanders is entering her senior season on the Crimson Tide’s rowing team. This is only her fourth year of rowing. 

“I’ve always wanted to go to UA. I didn’t look at any other schools,” said Sanders. “UA was the top priority for me.”

Sanders was home-schooled in Tuscaloosa and grew up swimming competitively. She trained in The University of Alabama’s Aquatic Center. She had world-class coaches in Lisa Berger and John Boxmeyer. Both Berger and Boxmeyer have ties to Alabama through athletics and academics — Boxmeyer is a mathematics professor at the Capstone.

Sanders said she didn’t know the sport of rowing existed until the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and she decided she wanted to give it a try. 

She didn’t start training to row until the summer of 2018, immediately prior to her freshman year. She credits her training for swimming — particularly her conditioning work — with getting her through the tryout process for walk-on athletes.

Sanders waited to let her friends and family know she planned to compete on the rowing team until picture day for the team following the final round of cuts. She said everyone contacted her to tell her how impressed and proud they were.

After making it through the walk-on process, she had top-10 and top-5 finishes for the rowing team in her freshman and sophomore years, respectively.

Her decision-making process when it came to college was easier than her athletic journey: It was always only going to be The University of Alabama.

“I think UA has the best championship mentality,” she said. Sanders believes the championship mentality applies to athletics and academics. She sees it in the College of Communication and Information Sciences, where she is studying creative media. “The people here — the coaches, the professors, the trainers — are great. That’s all I can say.”

While Sanders still lives with her family, she said going to school in Tuscaloosa had more to do with school pride and the success of the University, not so much staying close to home.

“It’s been nice, I like hanging out with my brothers,” she said of being close to family through college.

Sanders has come to further appreciate having a support system close to her while going to school here as she’s moved through her undergraduate years. She said she has friends, family members and mentors of all ages who come to “hype her up” at rowing meets and support her in person.

“It’s truly a blessing,” she said.

She also credits this support system with helping her — a self-proclaimed ambivert, leaning toward introvert — turn into a vocal leader on the rowing team.

“I didn’t expect it to happen,” Sanders said. “It happened so organically.”

Billman and the cross country team will travel to South Bend, Indiana, for the Joe Piane Invitational on Friday, Oct. 1. Danner will continue to train with the track and field team while the cross country season rolls on through the semester. Sanders and the rowing team compete away in early October and return to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 30.

All told, Sanders summed it up pretty perfectly for these three athletes: “I truly was ‘Built By Bama.’”