Publish date:


It would have been such a nice beginning. The barbecue would
have started at 2 p.m., in time for the morning fog to have
lifted, revealing the Channel Islands, so close off the
California coast that the Pacific Ocean seems a tranquil river,
idling past. The grill would have been lit, and while the food
cooked, the introductions and pleasantries between a new
gymnastics coach and an eager team would have commenced. The
young women whose sport was to be dropped by their university
would have gathered around their new coach, an erstwhile
attorney, to hear why she'd come to save their program.

That is what should have happened on Sunday in Isla Vista, the
town that abuts the UC Santa Barbara campus. That is where Santa
Barbara's newly hired women's gymnastics coach, Mari-Rae Sopper,
should have taken her first look at her girls, and they at her.
But there was no barbecue, no greeting, no coach: Sopper, 35, was
on American Airlines Flight 77 on the morning of Sept. 11, when,
shortly after its 8:10 takeoff from Washington Dulles
International Airport, en route to Los Angeles, terrorists
hijacked the plane and crashed it into the Pentagon, killing all
64 aboard.

From her first days, one year ago, at the Washington, D.C., law
firm of Schmeltzer, Aptaker & Shepard, Sopper (pronounced
soap-er) had chafed at the demands of her job. The firm
specialized in franchise law, and she found herself assigned to
cases in which she "felt she was going against the underdog," her
father, Bill, says. "Her family and friends all knew it wouldn't
be for her." They were right. Last October, Sopper, a former
gymnast, decided to devote herself to her first love and began to
seek a full-time coaching job in the collegiate ranks. By late
spring she'd applied for positions all over the country, knowing
any such job would pay a fraction of her salary as a lawyer.

She resigned from her firm in August, even though interviews with
numerous schools were proving fruitless. When Santa Barbara
finally called, she leaped at the opportunity--never mind that she
would be coming to a school she'd never seen, to coach women
she'd never met, to start a job that would not exist in a year.
"She was so completely excited. I can't remember her happier,"
said her mother, Marion Kminek (who is divorced from Bill and
remarried), last Friday from her home in Palatine, Ill., a suburb
of Chicago. "If she went, she would have had little to her name.
She didn't care. She knew that she had made the right decision.

"She was never a great gymnast," said Marion. "She just worked
harder than everyone else." Bill, laughing through his tears,
said, "There was no convincing her to let up. Ever."

A three-time All-America at Palatine's Fremd High, Sopper walked
on to the vaunted Iowa State team. As a senior, in 1988, she was
team captain and MVP. "She could be hard on teammates, but she
was someone who helped others as much as she pushed them," says
Mike Sharples, her coach at Iowa State.

After leaving Ames, Sopper received a master's degree in athletic
administration from North Texas and a law degree from the
University of Denver. She took a position with the U.S. Navy
Judge Advocate General's Corps in Washington. Along the way she
took part-time coaching jobs in gymnastics. Sopper, who had a
background in dance, developed a national reputation as a top
floor-exercise choreographer. "Everyone knew what a wonderful
coach she was," says Sharples. "It was in her blood."

In 1994 Jennifer Rudy, then a Denver-area high school freshman,
met Sopper at the Colorado Gymnastics Institute. "Mari-Rae's
floor routines were always beautiful," recalls Rudy. "She infused
the routine with the girl's personality. You could see that her
gymnasts loved who they were when they were on the mat."

This June their paths crossed again. Rudy, a senior at Santa
Barbara, was interning in Washington for the summer. The Gauchos
were without a coach for the following year, and Rudy, as the
team's only returning senior, had become its de facto leader. A
mutual friend told Rudy that Sopper, who had already applied for
the Gauchos job, was a lawyer in D.C. The two met for dinner in a
tiny Mexican restaurant. "I'm expecting a nice little meal,"
recalls Rudy, "but she hits the ground running, telling me all
her ideas to pump life into the program. By the end of the meal,
four hours later, I was ready to hit the gym. Right then."

Rudy lobbied her teammates to join her in pitching Sopper to
Santa Barbara associate athletic director Alice Henry. However,
on Aug. 10, Santa Barbara announced, to the shock of many, that
the gymnastics program was being terminated. Rudy was in a fog
until her phone rang that night. "It was Mari-Rae, telling me who
to call and what to say," says Rudy. "The whole time I'm
thinking, This woman's not even our coach and she's trying to
save us."

After team members protested that the abrupt termination left
them no time to transfer, the school announced on Aug. 14 that
the program was reinstated but made it clear that the reprieve
would be for one season only. Henry, with little time to search
for a coach, called Sopper. "I think [the administration] wanted
to please us, like it was the least it could do," Rudy says. "But
it didn't really want Mari-Rae coming in, trying to save things."

That, of course, was exactly what Sopper intended to do.
(Consider the title of one of her research papers at North
Texas, written in 1993: Collegiate Gymnastics Programs: Why Are
They Being Dropped and Can They Be Saved?) Even those who grieve
most for her acknowledge that the 5'2" Sopper was a tenacious
force. "She could be bullheaded, and she probably upset people,"
says her mother. "She didn't always have, well, people skills,"
says her father. "Now everyone tells me how much they respected
her and how much she changed their lives."

On Sept. 11 Sopper's family and friends sat in front of their
television sets as the horrors of the World Trade Center attack
played out. When the Pentagon was hit, Marion called her daughter
Christina Kminek, an architect in Washington, to make sure she
was safe. She then asked about Mari-Rae's travel plans. Christina
said she wasn't sure because a friend had driven Mari-Rae to the
airport. When it was announced that the plane that had struck the
Pentagon had left Dulles, bound for Los Angeles, Marion screamed.
"I just knew it was her plane," she says. Frantic calls by family
members to the airline confirmed their worst fears: Mari-Rae
Sopper had been on Flight 77.

Says Mari-Rae's sister Tammy, "I can see her now, standing up and
screaming, 'What do you mean, hijacked? You have no right!'" Her
mother is even able to laugh when she says, "With her on board,
well, God help those hijackers."

On Sunday morning a thousand people--family, friends and local
residents--packed the Fremd High gym for Mari-Rae's memorial.
Eulogies were delivered by former teammates and coworkers and by
her high school coach, Larry Petrillo.

Later that day, 1,700 miles away, another memorial took place.
Fifteen gymnasts led a procession across Del Playa Drive from
Rudy's apartment--where the team barbecue was to have been--to a
vacant lot above the coastline. In the distance the Channel
Islands loomed. As the sun dipped into the sea, the gathering
stood quietly and lit candles. Together they spoke of a coach,
their coach, and as the tiny flames danced to life, it was as if
Mari-Rae Sopper had arrived after all, and was there still.


COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL DEARLY HELD Stepfather Frank Kminek (left), mother Marion and father Bill recall Mari-Rae as a gymnast who would never give in.