Inverness native pursuing her dreams killed in attack
By Jamie Sotonoffand Shruti Daté Daily Herald Staff Writers
Posted on September 13, 2001
Whenever Mari-Rae Sopper did something, she did it in a big way.
When she competed in gymnastics, she became the Illinois Senior Gymnast of the Year and Iowa State University's MVP.
When she decided to quit her coaching job and go to law school at age 28, she handily passed the bar exam in three states, and landed a spot as a trial and appellate attorney with the U.S. Navy.
Sopper's family isn't surprised that now, at 35, she was still pursuing her dreams. But they're sad that her promising life was cut short.
Sopper, an Inverness native, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon Tuesday morning after being hijacked by terrorists. All 64 people aboard were killed, as were hundreds of others on the ground.
"It's just like her to go down this way and be part of history," said her mother, Marion Kminek, a West Dundee resident and a longtime Realtor with Re/Max Unlimited in Palatine, as a smile crossed her tear-strewn face.
Sopper was leaving Washington D.C. to take a new job as the head coach of the girls gymnastics team at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Wednesday was going to be her first day on the job.
"Here is this girl, who all her life had considered coaching, and she was finally going to live her dream ... obviously that dream was cut short," said Amy Pyle, who served as Sopper's gymnastics coach at Iowa State University in Ames from 1984-88.
Kminek was watching the televised reports of the attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York on Tuesday morning. She didn't fear for her daughter's life until she heard that one of the four hijacked planes had taken off from Washington Dulles Airport, destined for Los Angeles.
"I screamed because I just knew," Kminek said. "I could feel it. I knew she was on that flight."
Kminek frantically called Sopper's friends and American Airlines, but didn't get confirmation that her daughter was on the plane until 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Since then, a steady stream of friends have been stopping by Kminek's home in West Dundee, offering their support. The phone rings every five minutes with friends asking if they can do anything.
"It doesn't seem real yet," Kminek said. "It's not something you think will ever happen to a member of your family."
Family and friends describe Sopper as an intense, hard-working, health-conscious and politically opinionated person. She was a strong advocate for women's rights and civil rights - beliefs that helped lead her to become a lawyer.
But her passion was always gymnastics. Sopper had for years coached gymnastics on the side and attended the World Championships and other major tournaments.
She was well-known in the nation's gymnastics community and had a reputation for her beautifully choreographed dance routines. Parents of gymnasts frequently hired her, flew her out to their town, and had her choreograph a routine for them.
Sopper's talents as a gymnast, and as a leader, had propelled the girls gymnastics teams at Fremd High School and Iowa State to several championships. She competed on the teams during each of the four years she attended Fremd and Iowa State.
"It all started with her. She put Fremd on the map," said Larry Petrillo, Fremd's girls gymnastic coach.
The team had hardly won any meets during her freshman year, but by her junior and senior year, Fremd's girls gymnastics team ranked second in the state. Sopper, a 1984 graduate, pushed team members to accomplish their best and led by example. She was a high school All-American in 1982, 1983 and 1984, and an Illinois State Scholar and National Merit Semifinalst.
"We would not be as good as we were if it were not for her. Her dedication rubbed off on us," said Susie Halford, who served on several school and community gymnastics teams with Sopper.
Friends and coaches agreed Sopper's competitiveness pushed her.
"Mari-Rae was one of those gymnast who gave 110 percent for herself and the school," Pyle said. "She was a competitor, not afraid to speak up whether you wanted to hear it or not."
K.J. Kindler, who succeeded Pyle as the gymnastics coach at Iowa State, attended the university after Sopper graduated but said she constantly heard about the legend of Mari-Rae.
Even as she pursued a career as a lawyer, her passion for gymnastics never waned. She continued to coach on the side when she attended the University of Denver law school, and most recently, as an assistant coach at George Washington University.
She took a job with a large corporate law firm last year, and during that time, her passion to coach overcame her desire to practice law.
"She made the decision to become a gymnastics coach because she loved it ... it was always a passion," Petrillo said.
Friends emphasized that Sopper saw the career change as a dream come true and a challenge. She hoped to rejuvenate the UCSB girls gymnastics team, which will enter its final year this fall. She accepted the job just two weeks ago.
Though they had never met Sopper, players on the UCSB volleyball team were deeply saddened by her death. Word of her fate spread quickly throughout the Gaucho gymnastics program, a sport which ironically had been dropped by the university on Aug. 10 and then reinstated three days later for just one more year. UCSB officials opted for one more season after the athletes had complained that they had not been given enough time to transfer to another school.
"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," said junior Cara Simkins. "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."
The death of this accomplished young women also has brought the terror of the attacks hundreds of miles away close to home.
"I think there are so many casualties that everyone seemingly knows someone, but you never think you are going to know somebody," Halford said. "It's just surreal."
Mari-Rae's sister, Tammy Sopper, 33, said it is comforting to know Mari-Rae accomplished so much with her life.
"It's not like we think, she didn't have a chance to live," Tammy Sopper said. "She was at a high point in her life. A lot of people never reach those high points. That makes it a little easier."
A memorial service for Mari-Rae Sopper will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday in the Fremd auditorium, 1000 S. Quentin Road in Palatine. Her family chose that location because it was so special to her and the site of many of her proudest accomplishments.
Friends also are working to establish a gymnastics scholarship in Sopper's memory.
Sopper is survived by two grandparents, her parents, a stepfather, and five siblings.
Those closest to Sopper aren't angry about what happened, only sad.
"We aren't the only ones being affected by this," Tammy Sopper said. "This wasn't done by someone who wanted to hurt Mari-Rae. It's just a sign of the times."
• Mark Patton of the Santa Barbara News-Press contributed to this report.