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 Sharpies, 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 Sharpies. "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."