A native of Inverness, Mari-Rae Sopper, the Navy lawyer turned college gymnastics trainer killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, was a true believer.
Described as a breath of fresh air and an independent thinker, Sopper believed in people. She believed in causes, even those that seemed lost. And she fought for both.
As a defense lawyer with the Judge Advocate General Corps, Sopper believed all of her clients were innocent, her mother, Marion Kminek, said.
Facing drug charges, one of those clients told Sopper he tested positive because he ate oregano pizza the day before the test. Sopper wanted to believe him. No officer would jeopardize their career in this way, she said.
“We must have laughed at his naivety,” remembers Kminek.
“She was an idealist,” said Kminek, who commissioned the 2015 book “Within Her Grasp” to chronicle Sopper’s life. “I always said if the terrorists (9/11) came back, I could see her say, ‘Now you don’t want to do this’ and try to talk them out of it.”
As a lawyer, she excelled. At Sopper’s memorial service, a colleague in the Navy remembered her as an exceptional appellate lawyer. But it was not Sopper’s passion. Gymnastics was.
She has remained devoted to the sport her entire life, from her training debut with the Palatine Park District, at Fremd High School where she was Athlete of the Year and Outstanding Senior Gymnast, at Iowa State University where, as that walk-on, she got a gymnastics scholarship. While at the University of Denver Law School, she coached at the Colorado Gymnastics Institute. As a practicing lawyer, she coached at George Washington University.
More than anything, she wanted to train full time. In August 2001, she got the chance when the University of California, Santa Barbara hired her as a head coach in women’s gymnastics for a year, after which the program ended.
Sopper was not going to let that happen, Fremd coach Larry Petrillo recalled during his memorial service.
Dedicated to preserving gymnastics, she had previously formulated recruiting and funding plans for UC Santa Barbara, said Petrillo, who believed Sopper would have prevailed.
That morning 20 years ago, Mari-Rae Sopper was on her way to her dream job in Santa Barbara – a believer to the end.