Alabama swimmer John Servati remembered fondly by those whose lives he touched

It was just last Christmas when John Servati came back to his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., from the University of Alabama to visit. He stopped by the house of his Tupelo High School coach, Lucas Smith, and the two of them went to the mall with Smith’s daughters for Christmas gifts. Servati offered to spend some time with Smith’s 7-year-old, Emma, who had just returned from 11 days in the hospital with encephalitis.

The two of them peeled off and went into Dick’s Sporting Goods. There they were, the college athlete and the little girl, looking for Christmas gifts, holding hands. Smith will never forget the sight.

Monday night, as deadly storms tore through parts of the Deep South, Servati and his college girlfriend took shelter behind a retaining wall at a residence in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The wall gave way, according to reports, and Servati held it up just long enough for his girlfriend to escape unharmed. Servati, however, could not get out. He died at a nearby hospital. He was 21.

The people of Tupelo are reeling, not only from the devastation in their community but from the loss of Servati, a top athlete and student who was, in Smith’s words, “just one of those golden children.”

The pain is deeply felt at Alabama as well, as the loss to the athletic community comes almost three years to the day after 250 people in the state were killed by deadly storms. One was Ashley Harrison, the girlfriend of Crimson Tide long snapper Carson Tinker, who is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now there has been another tragedy – another line of storms that has taken dozens of lives in the region as of Tuesday afternoon.

“We are all saddened to learn of the untimely death of John Servati,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “He was a model student-athlete who excelled in his sport of swimming, his pursuit of excellence in academics, and his value as a son, brother, friend and teammate to all who knew him. Our thoughts and prayers go out to John’s family and friends as we grieve his passing.”

Smith has known Servati since the boy was 9 years old. He coached him on the local club team and at Tupelo High.

One of the more poignant traits Smith remembers about his former swimmer is that “he didn’t know his own strength.” Smith first saw Servati swim more than 10 years ago and immediately thought the kid could be a standout athlete if he only knew his potential.

“He was going fast and he couldn’t explain how he was doing it,” Smith says. “He didn’t even know he was fast.”

Smith thought so much of Servati that he asked him to swim the anchor leg on the Tupelo High relay team when he was only in seventh grade. During one race, Servati went up against one of the fastest swimmers in the state, and lost the lead left to him by his teammates.

“I want you to put me in that spot again,” Servati told his coach after the race. “I’ll never let them down again.”

The very next week, in the state tournament, Servati got the same lead against the same team and the same swimmer. He held on for the win. He went on to set multiple state records at Tupelo High.

“He lived for the team,” Smith said. “He loved the team. That’s what drove him. He loved the team.”

He grew to love the team at Alabama as well. Servati told Smith he wanted to race for the Tide when he was 13 years old. He made it to Tuscaloosa and was a three-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll. Alabama team captain Phillip Deaton said in a statement that Servati was “an amazing teammate.”

Servati was helping others, it seems, from childhood until the very end of his life.

“It showed by the way he carried himself,” Smith says. “You saw it in his actions. He was a servant.”