Before the bombs went off in Boston and Nicole Gross became a worldwide symbol for the victims of terror, Cadie Jessup knew her as the swimming coach who had helped Jessup reclaim her life.
In 2010, a blood clot took most of Jessup’s left leg. To jolt her recovery, she decided to try a triathlon. First, though, she needed to improve her swimming.
On a hunch, she called Gross, a well-known Charlotte coach who had never worked with an amputee athlete before. Jessup was still learning to walk on her artificial leg.
Yet in Gross, Jessup says, she found a coach “who never made me feel less than whole.”
The two formed a bond of firsts. “Nicole gave me my first avenue back into an active lifestyle,” Jessup says. “And I was her first connection to a physically challenged world.”
This week, Nicole Gross entered that same world. Unlike her friend, she didn’t lose a limb. But Gross will have to fight to recapture what she can of her former life.
The 31-year-old swimming coach, personal trainer and accomplished triathlete was among the 200 victims of Monday’s terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed. In an injury toll more fitting for a battlefield, many other bystanders lost arms or legs.
Nicole, her husband, Michael, and her sister, Erika Brannock, had been standing near the finish line waiting for her and Erika’s mother, whom Nicole had trained, to finish the 26.2-mile race.
The first bomb of the day exploded at their backs only yards away, firing out a crippling wave of nails, ball bearings and other shrapnel.
Erika, who teaches 2-year-olds near her home in Maryland, lost her left leg below the knee. She has a compound fracture in her right leg and several broken bones in her right foot.
Michael Gross was treated for burns and later released. Nicole and Erika’s mother, Carol Downing, was not injured.
After at least four operations, Nicole remains hospitalized in Boston with compound fractures of both legs and a severed Achilles tendon.
A photograph of her taken during the bloody aftermath of the explosion has gone global. It shows the blonde and statuesque Gross sitting in the center of the carnage with her clothes ripped, her body cut and bloodied, and her face a blend of shock and disbelief.
And there’s this, too: Despite her wounds and shattered legs, Nicole Gross looks for all the world like she’s trying to get to her feet.
Yes, you can
As unlikely as that sounds, it’s true to the descriptions of Gross from friends, co-workers and clients.
“Personally, she’s probably the most driven individual that I know,” says Michael Beacham, who works with Gross and her husband at Charlotte Athletic Club.
“I’ve never seen that girl down before,” says Rebecca Beischel, who spent four years with Gross as varsity athletes at the University of Tennessee.
“She has so much support from family and friends, and colleagues, and former teammates and current teammates. Are there going to be tough times? Sure. But she’ll come out better from this.”
Some of the most poignant endorsements of Gross come from some of her most distinctive clients: para-athletes, the men and women who still pursue physically active lives despite lost limbs or wheelchairs.
“She was the only one in the ‘active’ community that didn’t doubt me or my goals,” says Jessup, who not only ran triathlons but, at Gross’ urging, became a triathlon coach.
Janelle Hansberger of Charlotte, who lost her leg to a flesh-eating virus in 2010, remembers how Gross set up an underwater camera to film her and other students during a swimming clinic last year.
She then sent individual videos to each class member with tips on how they can improve.
“That was a lot of time and effort outside of what we paid for,” Hansberger says.
She considers her former coach a friend, even if their relationship has never included social occasions.
“I was just drawn to her,” Hansberger says. “She’s so young and cute – so good with people. She’s beautiful to watch in the water. I used to tell her, ‘I really just want to see you swim.’ ”
Tim Caldwell, paralyzed from the waist down since a 2002 car accident, met Gross last year at a swim clinic. A wheelchair basketball player, Caldwell wanted a go at triathlons. Gross offered to help. And she didn’t charge Caldwell for chunks of the training.
“She basically volunteered her time because she wanted to see that happen for me,” Caldwell says. “She just wanted to see me do a triathlon and cross the finish line. That was more important to her.”
Gross’ contribution didn’t stop there. Caldwell ran into logistical problems at his second triathlon last June, at Latta Plantation. The running portion of the event was held on earthen trails, impassable for his racing wheelchair.
“So it was one of those things where I trained for it, and then right at the end, they said, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ ”
In this case, they were wrong.
Gross had a solution: She ran the trails for him.
At UT, then Charlotte
Nicole Gross grew up in Howard County, Md., a southwest suburb of Baltimore routinely listed among the most affluent counties in the country.
She met Beischel in the summer of 1999 during orientation for freshmen athletes at Tennessee. Gross swam; Beischel, from Cincinnati, ran track.
On first impressions, Beischel found her new acquaintance to be a bit quiet and reserved. “But she’s always been open to a friendship with anybody. People just gravitate to that.”
Both women ended up in an open-ended curriculum known as “human ecology,” which offered all sorts of classes – none of them easy – linked to the human body.
When they weren’t studying together, they were practicing or competing in their separate sports. Beischel remembers the two cramming for tests while they rehabilitated from injuries.
“If we hadn’t had each other, it would have been miserable,” she says. “Nicole was always so positive, always willing to stick up for a friend.”
Gross’ future husband also swam at UT. He came to Charlotte a year ahead of Nicole and became a fireman. Now Michael is a manager at Charlotte Athletic Club, and Nicole is a staff trainer.
“Two more exceptional people you’ll never meet,” says Charlotte firefighter Henry Rosario, who went through department training with Gross and now works alongside the husband and wife at the club.
“They have an amazing desire to help those in need,” Rosario says. “You know when we were going through training, Mike and I would talk about how we couldn’t wait to get out to a station and do our jobs.
“Then once I met Nicole, I saw the same passion.”
As much time as they spend in gyms and on pool decks working with others, the Grosses are private people.
“Not antisocial; they’re just quiet,” says Beacham, their co-worker. “Honestly, for all this to be happening and for her picture to be posted everywhere, I can 130,000 percent say that she doesn’t want that at all.”
The couple lives in a townhome community near Rea and Ardrey Kell roads. Neighbor Deanie Klemm, who’s lived across the street from the Grosses for almost six years, says she often sees the pair walking their huskies, Kina and Navi.
“You never think this can happen so close to home,” Klemm says. “Here are these two beautiful human beings ... I can’t imagine anyone not coming to help.”
That process has already begun. Friends and co-workers have started “Be Strong Stay Strong,” a fund to help with Nicole’s, Michael’s and Erika’s medical bills.
Meanwhile, Klemm says friends are taking care of the couple’s animals and were to come out to the Gross home this weekend to build a wheelchair ramp for Nicole.
As the next phase of Nicole’s life takes shape, Jessup believes her friend’s work with amputee athletes may have been its own form of training.
“I think she knows that no matter how bad, how horrible a tragedy, you can get through it,” Jessup says. “It’s not easy, but it’s achievable, and life will go on.”
Their own friendship has come full circle. Through a common acquaintance, Nicole sent word to Jessup from her hospital room that she needed a favor: Could Nicole’s friend, who accomplished so much after losing her own leg, work with Nicole’s sister, who had just lost hers?