By Gene Phelps
Hannah Wilson talked by phone Monday with her “best friend” – John Servati. The focus of the conversation was their tornado-damaged hometown of Tupelo.
“I talked with him yesterday, checking to make sure his family was OK in Tupelo,” said Wilson, from Tallahassee, Fla., where she is a swimmer for Florida State University.
Servati, a swimmer for the University of Alabama, assured her his family was fine.
Hours later, however, Servati, 21, died Monday night as strong storms and a tornado passed through Tuscaloosa, Ala. The former Tupelo High swimmer was killed when a retaining wall collapsed on him in the basement of his home.
“He was my best friend,” an emotional Wilson said. “We used to train together. I wouldn’t be the swimmer I am today without him. My heart breaks for his family.”
According to news reports and Twitter accounts, Servati saved the life of his girlfriend by keeping the wall from collapsing on her.
Servati’s swim coach at Tupelo High, Lucas Smith, believes his former pupil was certainly capable of such a heroic effort.
“He was a young man passionate about his Christian faith. You could tell from the way he lived,” Smith said. “He died serving. … He pushed his girlfriend out of the way, saving her life.”
Servati’s Alabama swim family reacted with great sadness.
“John Servati was an extraordinary young man of great character and warmth who had a tremendously giving spirit,” Alabama coach Dennis Pursley said in a statement.
Crimson Tide team captain Phillip Deaton remembered Servati for a “genuine heart” and carefree spirit.
“He was my training partner for three years, and I can tell you that while he liked to goof around and have fun, when he stepped up on the block he was intensely focused … he was a competitor and an amazing teammate,” Deaton said in a university release.
A shoulder injury and subsequent surgery ended Servati’s college swimming career earlier this year. Wilson, who had lunch with him this spring in Tuscaloosa, said it was a tough decision to give up swimming.
“No athlete wants to be told he can’t do it any more,” she said. “I was proud of him. He made that decision to step away and do what was best for his health.”
Servati became the state-record holder in the 100-yard backstroke and 200-yard freestyle during his Tupelo High career. He helped lead the Golden Wave boys team to four consecutive state titles and earned 10 individuals state titles.
Not bad for the once reluctant 6-year-old who hated swim practice.
“My mom would take me kicking and screaming,” he told the Daily Journal in a 2010 interview. “I hated it, but I’m glad I stuck with it.”
Smith, who watched Servati grow up in the pool, battled with his emotions over the tragic news.
“This is hard,” the coach said. “I know he’s a man, but he’s a kid … a kid.”
A funeral service for Servati is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo. Visitation is Friday from 2-7 p.m. at the church.