By Michael Casagrande
Decatur Daily Sports Writer

The Alabama gymnastics scene of the late 1970s looked nothing like it does today. Title IX was starting to take hold, high schools sponsored teams and a junior college was beating up on the University of Alabama. Debra (Bodley) Harvel found herself in the thick of all three. A standout on the high school and collegiate level, Harvel's star was a rising with the Crimson Tide when a car accident cut the Hartselle native's career short. Harvel's decision to give up the sport is one she still regrets, though her accomplishments in a short span were impressive on their own.

Now, 34 years after her career peaked, Harvel will enter the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame. She is the only woman in the six-member class who'll be inducted 40 years after the landmark Title IX law required gender equity in public school athletics. Gymnastics was still evolving back then, Harvel said. "It's amazing, not just how it has grown, but much more advanced the skill level is," Harvel said. "A lot of that has to do with the equipment and the training they have. We didn't have spring floors and bars they do now, but I still think it's amazing the see what these girls do."

Harvel was a two-time All-American at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, but her career began in northern Alabama. A star gymnast at Morgan County High, Harvel led her team to a third-place finish in the 1976 Alabama state meet. Originally planning to continue with the sport at Jacksonville State, Harvel ultimately landed at Jefferson State. Good choice, she said. The suburban junior college near Birmingham was a rising power under the leadership of coach Tom Henderson. Since there weren't many two-year schools in the area, the Pioneers faced some of the NCAA Division I programs that soon became powers. Jefferson State beat Auburn, Southern Mississippi and Alabama - a program that would eventually win six national titles. Harvel eventually joined the Tide program, but her national championships were achieved before moving to Tuscaloosa.

The Pioneers won national junior college crowns in Harvel's two seasons (1977 and '78). She was an All-American both years and won the individual national championship on the uneven bars in 1978. Henderson, now the mayor of Center Point, remembers Harvel as the emotional leader on those two teams. He recalled a telling moment that exemplified the athlete she was. Harvel was on the beam at the national meet and appeared close to a fall. "She went on and finished her dismount instead of giving up like a lot of people would," he said.

The Jefferson State program was shut down three years after Harvel moved on to Alabama. Henderson said a number of issues doomed the team, including the rise of the Tide under a young coach named Sarah Patterson. Previously the coach at Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania, Patterson was hired by Bear Bryant the same year as Harvel arrived. Fresh off her successful run at Jefferson State, Harvel had high hopes for two more quality years with the Tide.

But the program was nowhere near where it would go. It had yet to record a winning season in the first four seasons with four different coaches. The gymnastics team shared a practice gym with the volleyball squad. At the same time."We'd be on the beam flipping and ducking away from volleyball," Harvel said. "And I think our mat was even a wrestling mat at the beginning." Harvel competed in two meets with Alabama before she rode home to Hartselle for a high school football game. The return trip ended in the hospital instead of her Tuscaloosa apartment. Harvel was a passenger in the car struck by another driver on a back road that night. Her injuries weren't major - no bones were broken - but damage was done to the muscles in her arms and back. Strangely, the only discipline that didn't hurt her injured shoulders was the uneven bars. But Harvel wanted to compete in the all-around."I worked very, very, very hard to get where I got," Harvel said. "I was just fearful I wasn't going to get back as good as I was. That was a mistake. Hindsight is 20/20."

She finished the year at Alabama before finishing her undergraduate degree at Alabama-Huntsville. Harvel went on to get graduate degrees at the University of Houston, UNA and UAB. She is currently working on her Education Leadership EdS through UAB. Education was her lifelong calling. She is a guidance counselor at Burleson Elementary in Hartselle after working at Hartselle Junior High, Sparkman, and Priceville during her 25-year career.

Harvel never went back to participating in gymnastics after leaving Alabama, but she stayed near the sport. She coached a little and was a judge in high school competitions before the state dropped the sport in the 1990s.

The University of Alabama alumni meet is an event Harvel likes to attend when she can. The Morgan County tradition with the Crimson Tide continues with a Decatur resident Harvel remembers seeing compete as a youngster. Lora Leigh Frost, who'll be a sophomore on Patterson's squad next year, was on the same club team as Harvel's daughter Shelley .Frost and Harvel came from neighboring hometowns, but took different paths to

Tuscaloosa. There's no more high school gymnastics, but the sport is competed on a different level these days.

"I was just in awe at how far they've come," Harvel said.

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