Hero Alabama swimmer Servati remembered in hometown
May 3, 2014 at 7:34p ET
TUPELO, Miss. -- John Servati would have been back home this weekend. He would have been helping haul tree limbs, fixing roofs and asking everyone he saw what he could do to help clean up the effects of Monday's EF-3 tornado that wreaked havoc on his hometown.
"Honestly I think he would have been there Tuesday," said Hannah Wilson. "I think he would have been there the very next day."
Instead, Servati returned to Tupelo in a way no one saw coming. He returned after doing something everyone had come to expect, serving, even when it meant giving up his life.
Servati, 21, a swimmer at the University of Alabama, was killed after the tornadoes and storms left Tupelo and struck Tuscaloosa. He died around midnight Monday from injuries suffered when a concrete retaining wall fell on him, but not before he held it up long enough for his girlfriend to get free.
A packed sanctuary Saturday afternoon at Tupelo's Calvary Baptist Church laughed, cried, mourned and celebrated Servati's life. The service started with a mesmerizing piano accompaniment to 'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus' and featured five speakers, including his high school swim coach and former pastor, Dr. Bryant Barnes.
"I got to introduce John to water before swimming," said Barnes.
Former Tupelo High swim mates, Wilson and Servati grew up together. They were training partners for two years at Tupelo, both with Division I ambition. That drive took Servati to Tuscaloosa and Wilson to Florida State.
"He's my best friend. The biggest emotion I'm feeling is how proud I am of him because I honestly would expect nothing less of the whole situation," said Wilson.
A 13-year-old John Servati looked up at his swim coach, "Hey coach, I really like Alabama, a lot. Do you think I'll ever be fast enough to go there?"
Servati may have been too young to realize his abilities then. But as he got older, he was too humble to brag about them.
"He was a really fast swimmer," Tupelo swim coach Lucas Smith said. "I'm really thinking, 'Son, do you realize how fast you are?' But John never acted like he was fast."
Servati never felt a need to talk about the 10 individual state titles he won and was much more likely to discuss the four straight team championships.
Smith, Servati's swim coach since he was 11, had already done his share of interviews after his protege's death, and didn't want to keep repeating himself.
"But I don't know a better way of putting that John was just a great servant. His faith was evident in his action and the way he lived. He didn't have to tell you he was a follower of Christ," Smith said. "That's just who he was and it showed in the way he treated people and in the way that he always wanted to help people."
Smith said he didn't believe the news.
"He was a machine in practice, a machine when he raced," Smith said. "I've seen him do so many magical things through his career, I just wanted to tell him, 'Come on, just get up. You can do this.' That's just what I kept thinking, he's gonna make it through. This is just wrong."
Smith spoke during the service through what he said were nerves, but it appeared to be more raw emotion, causing his voice to crack as he told stories of the funny things he said bonded them. He spoke to a crowd that included the Crimson Tide swim team and Alabama's Campus Crusade for Christ director Jeff Norris, who said he was introduced to Servati through former Tide football All-American Barrett Jones.
On a handout that read, "John Servati: Memoir of a True Southern Gentleman," former roommate and Alabama swimmer Jake Reynolds wrote this: "Ultimately, John had two dreams in life, to swim for the University of Alabama and to be a hero. He accomplished both."
Wilson was still in some sort of disbelief Thursday. The two grew up in the same neighborhood, same church, same school and teammates. It was a rocky start to a childhood friendship the two often laughed about.
"He's like my little brother all through my whole life. At the beginning, he's like a pestering little brother that I couldn't stand," Wilson said. "We always joked about how we could not stand each other because we were literally around each other 24/7.
"He pestered me like no other and I pestered him right back. As we grew up and swimming was so essential in our lives, that's when he became my best friend."
Wilson used present tense when calling Servati her best friend. She'll still wake up every other Sunday and likely expect to have that two or three-hour phone call that both required. She said if neither had that much time to talk, they'd just put it off until they did.
The two had lunch in Tuscaloosa on Mar. 31 when Wilson left Oxford, Miss. and took a different route to Tallahassee just to see him. It was the last time she would seem him, but the two talked Monday, a call to check on his family.
A shoulder injury and surgery had ended Servati's swimming career earlier this year, but that just freed up more time for him to help others.
The first letters of his last name are symbolic, as one Tupelo student pointed out to Smith: Servati translated from Latin to English means, "for saving."
He died a saving servant, to the surprise of no one.
"He would have been Uncle John to my kids. I wouldn't be the person I am without him," Wilson said.