The deadly wildfires in Santa Rosa, California, are more than 2,000 miles from East Tennessee. But the flames truly hit home in Knoxville for former University of Tennessee swimmer and Olympian Molly Hannis.
Hannis still lives and trains in Knoxville as a member of the U.S. National Team. This week, her mind has been in California where she watched video of wildfires destroy her family's Santa Rosa home.
"My parents called me early on Monday and said they were evacuating and the fire was across the street. A few hours later, I saw video from a news crew in my neighborhood, Coffey Park. They panned the camera and there was just a field with flames where my house used to be," said Hannis.
The house where Molly and her two older brothers were raised was reduced to rubble and ash. Thankfully, her parents escaped unharmed.
"We lost the house, but my parents are safe. That really is what's most important," said Hannis. "When my parents left their home, they literally took two t-shirts and some water. So, everything was in the house. Right now, they are living in a borrowed RV. There are no hotels rooms or rentals anywhere for 60 miles."
WBIR viewers grew to know the Hannis family during coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. Parents Michael and Terry Hannis were gracious enough to do several interviews before and after events as we followed Molly's Olympic journey.
Hannis said she has not talked much about the loss of her childhood home in the last week. However, she opened up more over the weekend when she was asked to help spread the word about a fundraiser for young swimmers who lost their homes in the wildfire.
"My swim club back home, the Neptunes, were my club from the time I was a 5-year-old until I went to college. The head of the Neptunes contacted me and said there were 15 kids in the club whose homes were destroyed. He set up a GoFundMe page to help their families and asked me to share it. I've been sending it around and asking for help, but he deserves the credit for setting everything up," said Hannis.
A contact of Hannis was able to get the attention of national publications, including Swim Swam Magazine. The exposure has helped the GoFundMe page raise more than $37,000 as of Tuesday night.
The empathy from Hannis is apparent as she emotionally explains how important swimming would be if she was in the same situation as a younger athlete.
"If I was that age and my parents lost everything, I think swimming would be what would get me through it. And it was not easy for my parents to afford everything that went into being involved in a swim club, so I can't imagine devoting resources to swimming if we lost everything we own. I know this [fundraising] page can be something that helps these families recover, continue with swimming, and help these kids get through this tough time," said Hannis.
As an adult, swimming is also likely helping Hannis cope. She stays busy training for the national team and wants to represent the United States at the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo. Hannis travels to California next week for a swimming event and hopes to visit her home for some closure.
"The next time I'm going to go home, or for holidays, what am I going home to? I don't know. I don't know what the next step for my parents is," said Hannis. "It has been surreal. At the same time, I'm grateful to be in a place like Knoxville. I know Knoxville really has been my home away from home and the people are so supportive."
Whenever and wherever her parents decide to rebuild, Hannis said a surprise box of cherished family photos is waiting for them in Tennessee.
"A few years ago, my grandmother died and I was helping clean out my grandparents' stuff. There were all these pictures my mom did not want because she already had copies at home. I did not really want them, but decided to keep them. Well, now these are literally all the pictures we have left. I don't think my mom remembers I have them, but I guess now she will find out. So, surprise! Mom, I actually do have pictures," smiled Hannis.