By Storms Reback
Will Emmons was tired.
It was after noon on April 28, 2014, and Emmons and two of the All Star teams he coached at Southern Athletics Cheer and Tumble in Pearl, Mississippi, had just returned from the Cheerleading Worlds Championship in Orlando, Florida.
The long bus ride home had Emmons debating whether he should cancel practice. A tornado warning issued for the surrounding area decided it for him: his kids were getting the day off.
The decision proved to be a wise one.
As the afternoon wore on, the wind picked up, the sky grew dark, and the clouds released buckets of nearly horizontal rain.
As quickly as the storm arrived, it left, and as the sky began to lighten, so too did Emmons' spirits -- until he received the sort of phone call you never want to get.
The girl on the other end of the line, a kid from his gym whose father was the local sheriff, was so upset she could only manage to get two words out: "It's gone."
Emmons was confused. "What's gone?"
The gym. It's gone.
With a queasy feeling in his gut, Emmons jumped into his car along with a friend and headed for the gym that had been Southern Athletics' home for less than a year.
A concrete slab is all that remains from the devastating tornado in 2014.
"I remember being in the car with my buddy," Emmons recalled during a recent phone conversation, "and it was quiet the whole time. We didn't say one word to each other. So many thoughts were going through our heads."
When he and his friend got off the interstate, they were met by a crowd of police officers who'd blocked off the road leading to Southern Athletics' gym. When the officers finally let Emmons through, he took off running down the road, unsure of what he might find at the gym.
"You couldn't see it from a distance," he said. "Then we rounded the corner. It was complete devastation. There was nothing left but a big pile of garbage. There was lots of tin [siding] in the trees and in the power lines, and our mats were in a big pile. Other than that, there was just a concrete slab. That was all that was left."
Siding from the original gym still hangs from the surrounding trees.
It Turned Out To Be A Blessing
After cheering at Mississippi State University, Emmons coached a high school team in Brandon, the community just down the interstate heading east from Pearl, before starting Southern Athletics Cheer and Tumble in 2013.
The gym had no All Star teams and only 20 kids to start. Less than a year later, it had to two All Star teams and 50 kids. Things appeared to be on the up and up.
Then the tornado hit.
It developed just west of Pearl along I-55, and as it crossed the Pearl River and moved east into Rankin County, it grew more intense and destructive. Throughout its 30-mile path, it uprooted trees, damaged homes, killed one person -- and destroyed one All Star cheer gym.
Anchor metal, siding and broken tile is all that remains on the concrete slab of the original Southern Athletics.
There is no good time to have your gym get obliterated by a tornado, but for Emmons the timing seemed particularly bad. Southern Athletics was just starting to take off. A sense of community had been established. The local kids and their parents had embraced it.
Staring at what was left of his gym, Emmons felt gutted.
"I fell down to my knees," he said.
My first thought was, 'What can we do for our kids so tomorrow when they wake up and it's time for them to come to the gym, they're gonna have a place to go?
The next day, Emmons led an effort to gather anything that could be salvaged from the wreckage. He and a crew of volunteers collected all the mats they could find, let them dry out for a couple days, then moved them to the local recreational center, which Southern Athletics called home for the next three months.
Southern Athletics relocated to Peal Parks and Recreation for three months after the tornado to keep classes running for the athletes.
"At one point the mats were in the trees and in a pile of garbage, but we made the best out of it," Emmons said. "Within a week, we were back running as a gym."
The decision to reuse the mats from the old gym wasn't simply a cost-cutting measure but a sentimental one as well.
"We really loved those red mats," said Ben Ingallina, who started coaching at Southern Athletics a month after the tornado hit. "We kept them as kind of a symbol to remind us who we were and where we came from."
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The mats weren't the only thing to be salvaged from the old gym. When Emmons leased a new facility just across the highway from the old gym three months after the tornado struck, he had parts of the hard floor from the old gym installed in it. Having to incorporate the hard floor into their daily routine ensured that the kids from Southern Athletics would never forget their humble beginnings.
"In our first year going to competitions, whenever our All Star kids got there and they saw full-size spring floors, they were amazed," said Emmons. "We didn't have that at our gym. We could only afford a hard floor. Having the hard floor in our new gym is a constant reminder. It's where we came from and where we started. We warm up and do our skills on the hard floor, and then whenever we get ready to run our routines, we move to the spring floor."
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Most cheer organizations would have folded after seeing their gym get leveled by a tornado, but Southern Athletics actually managed to grow during the three-month period it operated out of the local rec center.
"It turned out to be a blessing that our gym got hit by a tornado if you look at it in hindsight," Ingallina said. "Since a lot of people heard about our story, it brought us more clients, which allowed us to move to a bigger facility."
Ingallina credited the local community for helping Southern Athletics get back on its feet so quickly.
"Everybody knows each other here," he said. "Parents come in and say, 'Wow, this is a great gym. Our kids love it. The staff and employees are awesome.' Then those parents go to work and tell other parents about this awesome gym, and it just spreads like that. Word of mouth has been our best friend."
We Want To Put Mississippi On The Map
The most remarkable thing about Southern Athletics' comeback from near oblivion is that its coaches aren't content with merely surviving. They want to thrive.
In 2016, just two years after the tornado, Southern Athletics had 52 All Star athletes spread across four different teams. This year, it has eight All Star teams, including a Level 5 team; 120 All Star athletes; and 265 recreational tumblers.
Southern Athletics Level 5 team, Pride 5 is working to earn a bid to the 2018 Cheerleading World Championship.
Southern Athletics isn't just growing locally but on the national scene as well. Last year, it sent teams to the D2 Summit, NCA All-Star, and CHEERSPORT for the first time and plans to continue to do so long into the future.
What accounts for such rapid growth?
"We are the only gym in the area that gives 110 percent to our kids," said Emmons. "We love being a small gym. We love being D2. Our athletes get lots of one-on-one attention."
When they walk into our gym, they instantly feel like they're home. Our coaches are super passionate. We eat, breathe, and live cheerleading.
SA Owner and Head Coach Will Emmons prays with fellow coaches and athletes after a full day of practices.
Despite its swift expansion and increased exposure on the national scene, Southern Athletics hasn't turned its back on its calamitous past. More than three years later, the tornado remains the defining moment in the gym's history and promises to continue to serve that role for years to come.
In the lobby of Southern Athletics' current residence hang photos of the old gym and the mess the tornado made of it, and locals still identify the organization with the natural disaster.
But Emmons would prefer that people identify his gym with something else: excellence in the cheerleading community.
"You don't really hear much about cheerleading in Mississippi," he said. "That's what we want to change. We want to put Mississippi on the map. We want to be right there with the top contenders."
Pride 5 puts in work in the new home of Southern Athletics.
Despite how big Southern Athletics has grown, Emmons remains humbled by what took place on April 28, 2014.
"That day changed Southern Athletics forever," he said, "because it made us really appreciate everything that we have. That's what we teach our kids: You may not have a huge facility, but you can't let that stop you from being the best athlete you can be."
If you work hard and put your heart into something and you give it your all, things will work out. There's always gonna be bumps in the road, but you get back up and you keep going.