Ashley Priess saw the easy path. But it’s the difficult choice that turned the Alabama gymnast into a leader.
She stood on the sidelines of the 2011 NCAA championships, both ankles healing from major tendon injuries, feeling detached from her teammates as they celebrated their first national title since 2002. Graduation was six months away, and it tempted her with thoughts of moving on in life. Priess previously turned away from her Olympic dreams because of a major injury. Was it worth fighting to pursue another?
The answer became obvious as Priess stood victoriously on the podium last April, holding her team’s national championship trophy, comprehending what the difficult path coaxed out of her. To outsiders she was the gymnast whose near-perfect beam routine in the championships’ final performance rallied the Crimson Tide to its second consecutive title. But to those who witnessed Priess’ daily battles, the moment branded Priess a leader.
“I proved that my ability to compete for a team purpose was greater than as an individual,” she said. “I felt so grateful for every person who was part of that journey.”
And that journey was long and painful.
Priess’ career began as a promising Olympic hopeful, spending seven years in the U.S. national program and earning a spot on the U.S. Senior International Elite team – one step removed from Olympic competition. But fractures in her spine forced her to spend several months in a turtle-shell brace and accept that her Olympic dreams were finished.
So Priess changed her dream. She had longed to compete in college, so her desire shifted from Olympic individual to collegiate team glory. She made first-team All-America in each of her first two years at Alabama, along with scholastic All-America and dean’s list honors.
Then more injuries started threatening that new dream. A minor left ankle injury turned into a major problem during the 2010 NCAA championships. Priess landed a vault awkwardly and walked gingerly toward assistant coach Dana Duckworth. One of Priess’ tendons had ripped free, chipping part of the bone with it. And after that fall, just as the left ankle was starting to heal, years of stress in her right ankle set up a similar injury during an awkward uneven bars dismount. If that wasn’t discouraging enough, Priess then dropped a glass pitcher on her foot during a class presentation. The shattered glass sliced through the top of her foot.
Priess wondered if all the injuries were sending her a message. And after watching from an uninvolved, disconnected spot on the sidelines as Alabama won the 2011 title, part of Priess urged her to quit. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that her career wasn’t supposed to end in emotional defeat. After being raised in a sport that praises individual performances, Priess embraced the team concept.
Her comeback started small, rehabbing from nerve damage incurred during surgery that affected the movement of her toes. Once she could walk normally, Priess stepped up to the mental barrier of attempting a routine as teammates and coaches cheered each step.
Priess started with the bars and beam in the summer, and began tumbling by the fall. The vault followed into the winter, each step a frustrating challenge to develop her timing and confidence.
Priess didn’t start feeling confident until February. But by the time she stepped on the beam as the championships’ final performer, needing a 9.875 to pull Alabama into a tie with Florida for the lead, the leader was emerging.
She relaxed through the final routine, and when she dismounted with a twisting backflip to her team’s hysteric celebration, the scoreboard reflected the storybook finale.Priess scored a 9.95 – the highest score of the championship, sealing Alabama’s title.
“Some things are meant to be,” said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson. “That was a defining moment. That was meant to be.”
But the story is still writing its final chapters. Priess graduated midway through her senior season, and when her gymnastics career ends this spring she will also hold a master’s degree in sports management. The next step: a Ph.D in leadership studies, through which Priess plans to teach and spread the messages of mental toughness she learned via gymnastics.
“I always had it in my brain,” Priess said. “I just didn’t grasp it until I went through some struggles.”
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.