Ashley Priess living her dream at Alabama

Ashley+Priess+living+her+dream+at+Alabama

Jason Galloway

 

Alabama sophomore gymnast Ashley Priess knows what it’s like to run a marathon, only to pull up with the finish line in sight.

In 2008, she stood one good meet away from joining the United States gymnastics team at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The seven-year member of the U.S. national team had trained for nearly a decade before the 2008 U.S. Championships, the qualifier for the Olympic Games.

Leading up to those championships, however, recurring back problems from former injuries began to flair up again, leaving her with one of the toughest decisions of her life. She could destroy her body fulfilling her Olympic dream, or abruptly end her international career and have the health to still compete in collegiate gymnastics. The day before the U.S. Championships, she withdrew from competition.

“My coaches weren’t… happy with me,” Priess said. “It was really difficult for them to understand how I could have a dream of college gymnastics versus the Olympics because they seem like on such different scales.”

College gymnastics was always a dream for Priess, and Alabama was not a difficult choice. She knew of the Crimson Tide’s rich tradition, and she followed her sister Courtney to Alabama, who competed for the Tide until a back injury forced her to retire after her sophomore year in 2007.

“I still remember in ’96, watching the NCAA [Championships],” Priess said. Alabama won the national title that year. “I’m not sure what it was, but something about that team unity that was so appealing to me. I’ve never really enjoyed competition for myself. It was always really hard to go out there and compete to win something for myself, for my own personal benefit, because it never really did anything for me, and I always wanted to be part of something bigger and greater.”

She has had to keep an eye on her back problems since she dropped out of the 2008 U.S. Championships, but they have not slowed her down in her first two years with Alabama.

By the sixth meet of her freshman season in 2009, Priess was competing in the all around for the Tide. She is currently sixth in the country on balance beam, seventh on uneven bars and 18th on floor exercise. Priess spent time earlier in the season as the nation’s No. 1 performer on beam.

“She has a large repertoire of skills that she can do as an elite-level athlete and a tremendous balance beam worker,” Alabama head coach Sarah Patterson said. “She’s one of the most natural balance beam workers I’ve ever seen. She wanted a routine that she knew that 100 percent of the time she could go out and score a 9.95 on. That’s the way the routine was choreographed.”

Patterson also said the difference in Priess’ performance and maturity from last year to this year is drastic.

“I have another senior on the floor, and she’s only a sophomore,” Patterson said. “What coach can say that? She has matured from being a freshman to competing like a senior, and she’s only a sophomore. I’m really excited that she’s not graduating.”

Roughly half of Alabama’s routines will be graduating after this season, however, as the Tide’s senior class includes stars like Morgan Dennis, Ricki Lebegern and Kassi Price.

“Our senior class is so awesome,” Priess said. “They really, really helped us freshmen last year get adjusted and made us feel really important right from the start. I’m really excited about [leading the team next year], but I’m so sad at the same time. I cannot believe that they’re all leaving. I’ve gotten really close with all of them.”

Priess and the No. 2 Tide will travel to Lexington, Ky., this weekend to face No. 12 Kentucky Friday before traveling agin to face No. 1 Oklahoma on March 5.