When Sarah Patterson commutes from her home in Tuscaloosa to her office at Coleman Coliseum on the Alabama campus, she drives past blocks of damaged buildings, mounds of rubble and houses cleaved by downed trees. It has been nearly 11 months since an F-4 level tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, narrowly missing the campus, but many areas still lie in ruins. "There are parts of town where it looks like the tornado just happened yesterday," says Patterson, the coach of the Crimson Tide women's gymnastics team, the defending national champions. "People need to know that things aren't back to normal yet."
A few months ago Patterson came up with the idea to hold a tornado-relief meet with Missouri. When she called Tigers coach Rob Drass last September and suggested the two schools could honor tornado victims in Tuscaloosa and Joplin, Mo.—which a month after the Alabama tragedy was hit by the deadliest tornado in the U.S. in 64 years (161 died)—he quickly signed on. And so last Friday at Coleman, before the No. 14 ranked Tigers took to the mat against the No. 4 Tide, the two coaches stood with their teams as the lights dimmed, the 12,936 fans fell silent, and a two-minute tribute played on the scoreboard video screen, showing horrifying images from the two cities separated by 475 miles.
"None of us could believe that it could happen again when we saw the tornado hit Joplin," says Alabama junior Ashley Sledge (below), who had cowered in the basement of a campus building with students and faculty last April 27. "We know what those people went through. So this is more than a meet. It's about recognizing devastation and the work that still needs to be done."
A few minutes after the start of the meet Sledge took off down the vault runway. With Alabama governor Robert Bentley and Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox sitting nearby, she twisted in the air and stuck the landing, scoring 9.725. Alabama would defeat Missouri 197.175 to 195.375, but now Sledge's teammates swarmed her, smiling and patting her on the back of her black leotard, which was emblazoned with other numbers 4-27-11—the day that everything changed in T-Town.