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January 16, 2013TUSCALOOSA | Ashley Priess' decision to return as a fifth-year senior to the University of Alabama gymnastics team came with numerous upsides - her steady leadership, superb talent and the ability for the team to field a lineup almost identical to the one that won the program's sixth national championship in 2012.
But there was one caveat - Priess would need to be monitored carefully throughout the season.
The Wheaton, Ill., native missed the entire 2011 season after having two ankle surgeries following the 2010 season - one in the summer and one in the fall. In 2012, Priess was held back at the beginning of the season. But as the year went on, she was given a bigger workload and finished the season competing in the all-around in all four of the Crimson Tide's postseason meets.
Priess' health will be under an even more careful watch in 2013. Coach Sarah Patterson is taking a week-by-week approach in how she manages her star senior's "glass ankles."
"We have to be pretty smart in what we're doing," Patterson said. "But I also think, what a great opportunity. She's been on two national championship teams. She helped lead one in her senior year. And then now she's going to finish her master's by the time we're done with this season. It's a remarkable story."
In last Friday's season opener against the Missouri Tigers, the rust was apparent. Priess only competed on the uneven bars and balance beam, scoring 9.825 and 9.75, respectively.
"Her endurance didn't come back as quick as some of the others, and that's being in your fifth year as opposed to maybe a freshman or sophomore," Patterson said. "We'll just be really smart in terms of when she's ready and when she's available."
Last season, Priess was held off of the vault - the hardest event on a gymnast's ankles - until a showdown with the Florida Gators in the season's fourth meet. She didn't return to the vault until four weeks later on the road against Oklahoma, which was ranked No. 2 at the time.
2013 will feature more of the same, with Priess only going full-speed when she is needed against top opponents.
"I think the coaches have been very smart and we've had good communication to maintain my health," Priess said. "And I feel great this year. Just week by week we'll see how I feel."
There will also be constant communication between Priess and her coaches. In last season's Oklahoma meet, for example, Priess felt her ankle lock up while warming up for the balance beam. That would have been her fourth event of the night, but even in a tight meet, she told Patterson and Patterson was quick to pull her star in favor of a healthier but less experienced option.
"(Priess is) one of those athletes who knows her body really well," junior Ria Domier said. "So she's not pushing herself too hard right now."
With the depth Alabama brings into the season - the Crimson Tide lost just four routines from its national championship rotation - Alabama's coaches can be as cautious as they need to while Priess builds her strength.
"She's definitely taking it easier at the beginning of the season, relying on the rest of the team knowing that they can back her up," Domier said. "We love having her compete, but we don't necessarily need her to compete in the all-around every week to still post great scores."
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