Missouri gymnast perseveres after death of father, her biggest fan

Thursday, April 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:57 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 3, 2009
Missouri senior Adrianne Perry works on her balance beam routine at a practice at Hearnes Center. After her father's death last summer, Perry says she has struggled at times this season, but she has persevered and is set to compete in her fourth NCAA national meet starting Thursday in Lincoln, Neb.

COLUMBIA — James Perry’s co-workers knew about his daughter.

“Oh, you must be the gymnast,” they’d say when they met her. “Your dad talks about you all the time.”

Two Tigers in national meet

Missouri gymnasts Adrianne Perry and Sarah Shire will compete in the NCAA National Championships at 1 p.m. Thursday at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. Perry and Shire both qualified as individual competitors. Although Missouri did not qualify as a team, it is the first time the Tigers are sending two individuals to the competition.

Shire, a junior, is the second-seeded individual all-arounder in the championships, while Perry, a senior, is the fifth seed. During the meet, Shire will rotate with No. 1 Georgia. Perry, who is competing in her school-record fourth NCAA Championships, will rotate with No. 5 Florida.

Should Perry, Shire or both finish in the top four in Thursday's preliminary competition, they will advance to the individual event finals at 6 p.m. Saturday.

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He saved all the newspaper articles about his daughter Adrianne Perry, a senior gymnast at MU, and always had them ready to show. He even showed them video clips of her performances. James Perry bragged about his daughter so much that she felt embarrassed being around his co-workers.

“I just feel like he was the one person who would always tell me all the time how proud he was of me and everything I was doing,” Adrianne Perry said. “…I think he was amazed at how much I loved gymnastics and how hard I worked at it.”

Growing up a competitive gymnast, Adrianne Perry felt pressure to satisfy coaches and sometimes her mom, Diane O’Meara, who competed in gymnastics as a girl. But she never had to worry about making her father happy.

“She could never disappoint him with anything,” O’Meara said.

James Perry died last June at the age of 66 after suffering a blood clot in his lung. He smoked and had emphysema, and Adrianne Perry always tried to get him to stop smoking. She said he had to stop and catch his breath after climbing a flight of stairs, and his health deteriorated fairly quickly the last five years of his life.

There’s no doubt he would have been uncontrollably proud of his daughter when she competes at the NCAA National Championships on Thursday  in Lincoln, Neb., when she will become the first Missouri gymnast to compete at nationals for a fourth time.

Last year at nationals, Adrianne Perry was on the verge of becoming an All-American after performing well on her first three events. All she had left was balance beam, an event she felt more than comfortable in.

She fell on the beam. Her All-American chances were gone.

“I just remember, I called him after the meet that night feeling sorry for myself, crying and just being very negative,” she said. “I just wanted to feel sorry for myself … And he was just like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s a huge accomplishment for you to have even gotten there. Not many people can do that. I’m very proud of you.’”

He always was, no matter whether Adrianne Perry scored a 9.9 or 9.0. And he was always there to comfort her and put things in perspective after meets.

On June 17, 2008, James Perry fell to the floor in his home. His youngest son, Justin Perry, was at the house and heard the thud.

After three or four missed phone calls and 20 minutes speeding through traffic, Adrianne Perry was driving on the outer road that led to her dad’s house when she saw an ambulance coming toward her.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ And I knew he was in there,” she said, crying.

James Perry’s family spent much of the night going in and out of his room at University Hospital. Adrianne Perry said she just wanted to keep seeing her dad and say things to him.

“I just remember, I couldn’t stop hugging him and kissing his forehead,” she said, noting the bump her dad developed after falling and hitting his head.

“I wanted to just curl up next to him on the bed, but I didn’t fit,” she said, choking up and speaking in fragments. “He had so many things hooked up to him that I remember even trying to hug him, I was like having to maneuver through all the cords and stuff.”

At 8 a.m. the next day, he died after suffering a blood clot in one of his lungs and becoming brain dead. Adrianne Perry’s final image of her dad isn’t the one she wants to remember.

After her dad died, Adrianne Perry stayed away from the gym for two months. A whirlwind of thoughts flooded her head, including quitting gymnastics. She kept going to her summer marketing class and managed a B-, though she doesn’t know how she did it.

“For a long time, I just wanted to lay in my bed and once again feel sorry for myself,” she said. “And I was like, ‘This is not what my dad would want.’ And I started getting back into a normal routine and it made things a lot easier.”

As difficult as it is for Adrianne Perry to talk about her dad, she laughs just as much as she cries when remembering the simple, funny man he was.

“He was always laughing,” she said. “I feel like even when his health was bad, I just feel like he never had a pity party on himself. He didn’t have very much money either, and I feel like where he could have easily felt sorry for himself and been such a downer, I just feel like he wasn’t like that at all.

“I feel like he was always laughing, I guess kind of a simple man. It didn’t take much (to make him happy) … He loved his TV. He loved his corny movies. He was just content with life. I guess I just always appreciated that from him because I feel like I try to do that, but I just get so much more stressed about life.”

James Perry would have rather rented a movie and had a nice steak and potato than go out, O’Meara said.

“He kind of knew what he liked,” said Rodney Gust, Adrianne Perry’s boyfriend. “He wasn’t a big mystery.”

A New Jersey native, James Perry had a variety of experiences throughout his life, and Adrianne Perry loved hearing his stories. In his younger years, he was in the U.S. Navy and then a police officer. During the 10 years before he retired, he worked as a caregiver at Woodhaven, a community living center for people with developmental disabilities near Business Loop 70 and Interstate 70.

James Perry treated the people he cared for like family, said Heather Crews, a former supervisor at Woodhaven. A talented cook, he was the first one to sign up to make meals on holidays. He would cook for his own family, then come in and cook for people at Woodhaven, Crews said.

“We all thought of him as our resident dad,” Crews said. “When he lived at that house…every night he’d have a plate of dinner ready for me in the refrigerator.”

Crews said James Perry also worked a maintenance job at Stephens College to make sure Adrianne Perry was able to get the training and coaching she needed.

“He was so proud,” Crews said, adding that he would take his co-workers to his daughter’s meets.

Adrianne Perry can’t help but smile and laugh about her dad.

She laughs about his affinity for corny movies, like Rambo and Spaceballs, over scary movies, which he never wanted to watch.

She laughs about the times when she used pens and other objects trying to show him what made up different gymnastics motions and skills, though she said he had no idea about gymnastics.

And she laughs about seeing him waving to her from the second deck of Hearnes Center, where he always sat during meets.

“He didn’t like climbing up all the stairs of the Hearnes Center,” she says, starting to laugh. “He’d usually not sit up in the front like my mom (does).

“But he’d always be up in the B section,” she says, laughing harder, “because he’s like, ‘I hate those damn stairs.’”

Although he wasn’t as close to the action as most, he was no less involved in supporting his daughter and her team.

“At meets he’d look so happy and content just sitting up there,” Adrianne Perry said. “He’d always wave to me when he got a chance, waved to (Alicia) Hatcher and the rest of the girls … Throughout every event, I feel like I’d look up at him and wave and stuff, and he’d be giving me a little fist-pump or a thumbs-up and a huge smile and always made me fool good.

“And I feel like,” she pauses and takes a deep breath, “this past season was hard in that regard because I feel like I was by myself during the meet looking up to places where he sat before,” she whimpers, barely getting through the sentence.

O'Meara said Adrianne Perry has battled injuries with her ankle and shoulder this season, but she’s also missed her dad and the perspective he provided, especially during tough times.

“At times I felt like, ‘Is this all worth it?’ said Adrianne Perry, who said there were times she didn’t want to do gymnastics anymore. “Just kind of feeling you don’t feel like you’re getting recognized for all the hard work you’re doing. It would have been nice having my dad being like, ‘I’m proud of you.’ That would have helped. But I know people are proud. He is proud, would be proud.”

Adrianne Perry and her three siblings all live in the same house with their mom. They leaned on each other after their dad died. Even now, when they talk about their dad, they all laugh together about the funny memories they have.

But Adrianne Perry needed a lot of self-reflection after her dad died. O’Meara said she’s been very independent since moving by herself to Blue Springs for high school at the same time O’Meara and James Perry were going through a divorce.

“She’s a pretty strong young lady,” O’Meara said. “She had to do a lot of growing up on her own. I almost feel like I wish she needed me a little bit more than she does.”

Even Adrianne Perry expected that she would struggle more this year. Sometimes she thought about her dad at the gym and had to leave, but she handled it well.

“I felt like I did a really, really good job of not getting upset at practice,” she said. “Looking back on it, how I felt at some points during the season, I’m really surprised myself at how I did that.”

Adrianne Perry can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since her dad died. She thinks about him frequently. Her family dedicated a tree at Stephens Park to James Perry. It’s a giant oak tree that towers over the path that Perry runs on most weekends.

“(It’s) an older, established tree,” said Adrianne Perry, who finds the tree fitting for her dad. “And his plaque is right under the tree, and I run by it and a lot of times I stop and will say something or just think about him.”

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Andy Carpenter April 16, 2009 | 2:55 p.m.

This is an excellent read. Great work, Alex.

(Report Comment)
Heather Crews April 16, 2009 | 5:44 p.m.

A wonderful tribute for a wonderful man.

(Report Comment)
Harumendhah Helmy April 16, 2009 | 7:14 p.m.

This is really, really good. I cried a little bit.

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