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September 11 Memorial: Remembering the victims who died at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania

Photo of

Mari-Rae Sopper

Age: 35

Hometown: Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

Occupation: Women's gymnastics coach, UC Santa Barbara

Location: Passenger, American Flight 77, Pentagon

"It was her favorite picture. If it isn't her, it looks a lot like her. She lived, breathed, ate gymnastics every waking moment. She had always wanted to be a collegiate gymnast coach, but a master's degree is required. She got it, but there were no openings when she got out. So she went into law. She went on with her life always knowing she was going to come back to that. She always kept one foot in gymnastics." --Marion Kminek, mother


The subject line of Mari-Rae Sopper's last e-mail to her family and friends summed it all up. She wrote:

"New Job New City New State New Life."

That's where the 35-year-old was headed when she boarded American Airlines Flight 77.

She was on her way to the University of California at Santa Barbara to the job of her dreams: women's gymnastics coach.

She had accepted the post in August, knowing that the school intended to phase out the team after this season. But that didn't deter the tenacious 5-foot-2 gymnast and lawyer. She planned to persuade the school to keep the team alive.

"One thing she taught me is, you never settle for less than you're capable of," said Sopper's high school gymnastics coach, Larry Petrillo. He met her 20 years ago on his first day at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill.

She was only 15 then, but she was brash. ("Bullheaded," says her mother, Marion Kminek.) Sopper walked into the gym and told Petrillo what he should do to turn around the ailing girls' gymnastics team. Then she helped him do it.

She was named an all-American in four events, the school's Athlete of the Year and the state's Outstanding Senior Gymnast of the Year.

She garnered more honors at Iowa State University.

Sopper earned a law degree from the Denver University School of Law while working as an assistant coach at the Colorado Gymnastics Institute. In 1996, she moved to Washington, where she joined the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) as a lieutenant, defending sailors in their appeals of criminal cases for four years.

For the past year, she had worked in the franchise litigation section at the Schmeltzer Aptaker & Shepard law firm, and in her spare time, she worked as an assistant gymnastics coach and choreographer at George Washington University. The job at UCSB finally fulfilled her desire to work in gymnastics full time.

On the morning of Sept. 11, as she left for California, she exuded joy.

Her former JAG colleague, Jim Bailey, drove her to Dulles International Airport. He helped her unload her luggage and her kitty crate. He gave her a hug and said, "Call me when you get to Santa Barbara." He got in his car, honked, and Sopper turned around and waved.

"She looked so excited," Bailey said.

-- Sylvia Moreno

<style> #PentmemMemoryWrap { margin-left: 95px; width: 506px; background: #faf7ec; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 11px; color: #2e2e2e; } #PentmemMemoryTop { padding: 14px; } #PentmemMemoryTop img { padding: 0px 0px 0px 10px; } #PentmemMemoryTop .headline { font-size: 12px; font-weight: bold; } #memAuthor { float: right; margin: 2px 20px 20px 0px; font-weight: bold; } .blurb { font-size: 11px; line-height: 16px; margin-left: -92px} </style> <div id="PentmemMemoryWrap"> <div id="PentmemMemoryTop"> <div class="blurb"><p><img src="" align="right" border="0">"A beautiful thing about Mari-Rae was that she did more than get upset when she saw injustice -- she acted on many of her convictions. She had an undying belief in doing the right thing, regardless of mainstream thinking. </p> <p>Mari-Rae was known for a dramatic flair. Her letters were no postcards - five pages front and back, handwritten and smeared because she was a lefty. They were her manifestos, read and reread, with notes in the margins, until they were perfect, because she wanted you to know exactly where she stood. And that's what we could count on, her honest opinion."</p> <div id="memAuthor">-- Marion Kminek, mother <!-- /end memAuthor --></div> <!-- /end blurb --></div> <br> </div> </div>

Source: The Washington Post, AP and

The profiles in this feature were written in the months following Sept. 11, 2001.

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A day after the 9/11 attacks a makeshift memorial was created on the Arlington Memorial Cemetery fence. Seven years later, the first 9/11 memorial is opening.

Related Coverage:

3-Dimensional Virtual Memorial

Victims Remembered in Maryland

One Family's Loss

Stepping Through the Ashes

Pentagon Under Attack

Five Year Anniversary Coverage

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