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.