City school gymnastics saved by 9/11 victim Mari-Rae Sopper’s fund

By Ashleigh Livingstron Press-Republican

Mari-Rae Sopper

PLATTSBURGH — Plattsburgh City School District’s Gymnastics Program is sure to survive another year, thanks to one woman whose passion for the sport lives on after her death.

Mari-Rae Sopper was on her way to start a new job as women’s gymnastics coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara on September 11, 2001, when the plane she was on — American Airlines Flight 77 — was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon.

Sopper, who had been voted Iowa State University’s most valuable gymnast in college and served as a coach to the U.S. Naval Academy’s women’s gymnastics team, was one of 59 people on the plane killed in the crash.

Shortly after her death, Sopper’s mother, Marion Kminek of Cape Coral, Fla., created the Mari-Rae Sopper Memorial Fund in an effort to keep her daughter’s memory and passion for gymnastics alive.

Over the past 10 years, the fund has donated tens of thousands of dollars to university- and club-level gymnastics programs all over the country.

’REALLY MAD’

This spring, the gymnastics program was one of many cuts made by the Plattsburgh City School Board due to revenue shortfalls. Made up of modified, junior-varsity and varsity teams, the program had involved about 20 student athletes.

”I got really mad,” said Dalen Keswick, a member of PHS’s varsity gymnastics team. “I didn’t want my sport to be cut.

”It’s been, like, my whole life.”

IMPACTS OTHER SCHOOLS

The district’s gymnastics program is one of just three remaining in the area, said Janice Trudeau, gymnastics coach at PHS. So its elimination would threaten the future of the sport in the North Country as a whole.

”If there are not enough schools, then no school will have gymnastics. It really isn’t 20 kids we’re talking about; it’s over 60 kids between all the schools that are affected if we close down.”

Unwilling to let a lack of district funding stop them from competing in the sport they love, Plattsburgh City School gymnasts, as well as parents, grandparents, coaches and supporters, formed the Plattsburgh High School Gymnastics Team Support Group, in cooperation with the PHS Booster Club.

$8,000 GOAL

The group began fundraising in June in hopes of independently raising the nearly $8,000 needed to finance the program through the 2012-13 season. Plattsburgh School gymnasts and coaches from and the other teams from Peru and Beekmantown central schools raised about $2,700 in two months.

”It’s overwhelming, the support we get from the public,”  Trudeau said. “People have been so generous.”

LAST OF FUND

But with gymnastics pre-season training set to start in mid-August and the group still more than $5,000 shy of its goal in mid-July, Support Group member Bob Bunnell turned to the Mari-Rae Sopper Memorial Fund for help.

Bunnell, whose daughter coaches gymnastics at Peru Central and granddaughter hopes to participate in Plattsburgh City School’s Gymnastic Program when she’s old enough, contacted Kminek and explained the program’s funding crisis.

That very day, Kminek wrote a check for the Memorial Fund’s last $6,223.57 to the Support Group, enough money to fund the gymnastics program for another season.

”We were under the gun, and she really helped us a lot,” Bunnell said.

”I believe it is a perfect ending,” Kminek told the Press-Republican in an email.

”Mari-Rae believed strongly in continuing the high-school and college gymnastic programs, and she would be thrilled that her memorial fund has been used to continue a program and keep it from being eliminated.”

FUTURE FUNDS

But even with the generous donation, Bunnell said, there is still much to be done to ensure the long-term future of PHS gymnastics.

”It certainly is going to get us through this season,” he said of Kminek’s contribution. “It doesn’t mean we can let up on fundraising, though.”

”We’re going to keep on going because as much as we hope that they (the School Board) would reinstate (the program) next year, we can’t guarantee that.”

To donate, mail checks made payable the PHS Booster Club with “gymnastics” in the memo line to: Plattsburgh High School Booster Club, 1 Clifford Drive, Plattsburgh, NY, 12901. Bunnell also urges former PHS gymnasts to contact him at bobbunnell@charter.net or 314-1612.

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