By Haley Steele
AUBURN, Ala. -- Two years ago, Lorie Sardelli donated her horse, Figgi, to the Auburn equestrian team. Her daughter, Nikkie, used to ride, and Lorie wanted to find a second career for the horse. At the time, she was unaware of the impact that donation would have on the Auburn program, or the impact the Auburn program would have on her.
"I like to say that [Figgi] was a lucky charm because the team went on to win the sectional and the national championship," Lorie said. "I'm just so excited that Figgi was part of it."
That experience of helping Auburn left a lasting impression on Lorie.
"It was such an eye opener for her," Auburn equestrian head coach Greg Williams said. "She was just trying to find a second career for her horse, and what she really found was what NCAA equestrian is all about, how the athletes are treated, and just how big college athletics are a part of their life here. It was a surprise to her and she just loved the southern hospitality and really felt like part of the Auburn family really quick."
This past September, being a part of the Auburn family helped in ways Lorie could have never imagined. Nikkie was staying at her family's house in Naples, Fla., when Hurricane Irma hit. Initially, it was supposed to hit the East Coast, but when the storm shifted course, the residents of Naples were ordered to evacuate at the last minute.
Lorie and her husband, Stephen, who were visiting family in Rhode Island at the time, began calling hotels in northern Florida and Georgia on their daughter's behalf, but by that time, all the hotels in the area were booked.
Stephen flew back to Florida and helped Nikkie evacuate while Lorie stayed in Rhode Island and started calling hotel chains to reserve a room her family.
"I started calling hotels in Auburn," Lorie said. "I must have called 12 hotels in Auburn and surrounding towns and there was nothing."
It was in that moment when Lorie reached out to the Auburn equestrian team for help. She called assistant coach Jessica Braswell, who was the one responsible for recruiting Figgi and completing Lorie's transaction.
"One of the things that was so fun about [Lorie] is that she had no connection to Auburn before she donated the horse," Braswell said. "They were just so amazed by this place and the environment and the family atmosphere when they came down the first time. That speaks volumes, not just to athletics or the equestrian program, but to what Auburn is all about."
While Lorie's family started heading inland away from the storm, Braswell suggested she call local and bed and breakfasts in Auburn to check and see if there were any available rooms.
"By chance, I called the Crenshaw House and they had one room available," Lorie said. "It just came available that morning because a couple from Naples, ironically, had cancelled their reservation. It's strange because since then we've actually met that couple."
Stephen and Nikkie spent six days at the Crenshaw House.
"I had let Coach Williams know that they were coming," Lorie said. "I was almost in tears, quite honestly. It was like calling family, not just an equestrian coach."
"I think for us, it's the way we've always done it," Williams said. "I guess what I like is that when you hear about it and it makes an impact on how much it means to people, but that really is just the Auburn way. And it's something I've heard from coaches that coach all over the country. You know, everyone will talk about tradition and family. It's just so true here."
For Stephen, it was his first visit to Auburn. Lorie and Nikkie had the opportunity to visit the university and attend a football game when Figgi first joined the equestrian team, and it was that weekend where they discovered the cultural linguistics of the area and what it means to be an Auburn Tiger.
"I still talk about that game day and tailgating party, and the seats [Williams] gave us," Lorie said. "I also still have all my orange and navy clothing that I bought there. In fact, the other day [in Florida] my husband was wearing an Auburn sweatshirt, and someone had the nerve to walk by him and go 'Roll Tide!'
"I spun around so fast and said 'Tigers! War Eagle!' The other woman said she couldn't help herself, and I told her that I wasn't going to let her get away with that."
That pride did not necessarily stem from the equestrian program and the national championship Auburn won with Figgi. That pride came from the generosity and hospitality shown to her by the Auburn family outside of the arena.
"I didn't know what I was getting into when we donated Figgi there, but now I have not just donated a horse, I gained a family," Lorie said. "It was so comforting when they offered to do whatever they could to help my family get out of harm's way."