'Shocked and dismayed'
UC Santa Barbara's Sopper on flight that hit Pentagon
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) -- Mari-Rae Sopper, the women's gymnastics coach at UC Santa Barbara, was aboard one of the flights downed by terrorists.
She was traveling on the American Airlines flight from Washington that crashed into the Pentagon on Tuesday, according to a list released by the airline.
Gymnastics had been dropped by UCSB on Aug. 10, but was reinstated three days later for one year, and Sopper was hired as coach less than two weeks ago.
School officials chose to keep the sport for one more season after the athletes complained they had not been given enough time to transfer to other schools.
"We're shocked and dismayed by what has happened," UCSB athletic director Gary Cunningham said Wednesday. "Our deepest sympathies go out to her family. Mari-Rae was a very dynamic and enthusiastic person, and it is tragic that her life was cut short. We are all extremely saddened by the loss and its significance cannot be expressed in words."
School spokesman Bill Mahoney said no discussions had been held concerning a replacement for Sopper, but said one will be hired.
"We're extremely saddened by the loss of a dedicated educator and coach," Chancellor Henry T. Yang said. "Our hearts go out to her relatives and loved ones. We had been impressed by Mari-Rae Sopper's enthusiasm, and were looking forward very much to the direction and energy she would bring to our women's gymnastics program."
Sopper had been an assistant coach and choreographer for the U.S. Naval Academy's women's gymnastics team before taking the job at UCSB. She also served as a graduate assistant at the University of Denver for one year, as the floor exercise coach and choreographer for the Colorado Gymnastics Institute for three years, and as a Junior Olympic gymnastics coach in Dallas for three more years.
"What is so amazing about Mari-Rae is that she knew the program would only be in existence for one more year, but she accepted the job with so much enthusiasm," UCSB junior Cara Simkins told the Santa Barbara News-Press. "We were supposed to get together with her on Sunday in a meet-the-team barbecue.
"We had been e-mailing her, and her e-mails were so enthusiastic. Her arms were so wide open for us. She cared so much."
In high school, Sopper was honored as the outstanding senior gymnast in Illinois in 1984.
She graduated from Iowa State in 1988 and received a master's in athletic administration from North Texas in 1993. Three years later, she graduated from the University of Denver College of Law.
"She was an incredible person who had done so much in her life," said Lesley Ross, a sophomore gymnast at UCSB. "She had an awesome attitude and was so in love with the sport. She was getting us all pumped up to come back."
Simkins said the teammates she has spoken with still plan to compete this year.
"I think we just have to keep going, take everything what's happened into our season, and try to come out of it even stronger," she said. "We can't go out like cowards."