Book recounts Inverness 9/11 victim’s triumph over mental illness

Jamie Sotonoff Daily Herald

Chicago — After Inverness native Mari-Rae Sopper was killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, dozens of lovely tribute stories were written about her life.

The 35-year-old had just quit her job as a Navy JAG Corps attorney and was on her way to California to start a new job coaching women’s college gymnastics — a sport she’d loved since her days as a star gymnast at Fremd High School in Palatine. Her first day on the job was supposed to be September 12, 2001.

A new book, "Within Her Grasp," details the life of Sept. 11 victim Mari-Rae Sopper, an Inverness native and Fremd High School alumna.

A new book, Within Her Grasp, details the life of September 11 victim Mari-Rae Sopper. Photo courtesy of Marion Kminek

In the last email Sopper sent to her family and friends, she wrote in the subject line: “New job, new city, new state, new life.”

What the stories didn’t mention was that Sopper battled mental health problems that nearly sidelined her success. She managed to fight her demons while working at her impressive legal career, doing political and civil rights advocacy work, and being a positive influence on young gymnasts.

Those details are included in a new book about Sopper’s life, “Within Her Grasp,” released Friday on what would have been her 49th birthday.

“It’s just a story I thought should be told,” said Sopper’s mother, Marion Kminek, who commissioned and contributed to the book. “I wanted the good, the bad, and the ugly, otherwise it wasn’t real. So her highs and her lows are in the book.”

The book details how, while Sopper was smart and driven, she also suffered from bipolar disorder, once attempted suicide and could be brash and difficult to get along with.

“And, yet, look at what she accomplished,” Kminek said. “There are people who said to me that Mari-Rae changed their lives. Her story proves that nothing has to hold you back because you have a problem. You can get to your goals no matter what.”

Many of Sopper’s family members and friends were interviewed for the book, sharing stories like her much laughed-about “Operation Hemline” effort. Not liking the long skirt for her Navy uniform, she (unsuccessfully) tried convincing the military to let her take it up two inches so it’d be more stylish and flattering.

The book also mentions Sopper’s superstitious fear of odd numbers. Even when she put on deodorant, she couldn’t swipe it three times, her mom said. It had to be two or four. Sopper’s flight to California, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. on 9/11/01, when she was 35 years old — all odd numbers.

One of Kminek’s favorite stories in Within Her Grasp is when Sopper, a staunch Democrat, locked her car doors and wouldn’t let her Republican friends out until she finished a long rant on why they should vote for Bill Clinton instead of George Bush.

The part of Sopper’s life that stood out most to the book’s author, Joanne Simon Tailele, was her fierce determination and perseverance. Anyone pursuing a dream who’s faced constant obstacles will be inspired by her story, she said. But Tailele said the book doesn’t shy away from Sopper’s “other side,” which could be very difficult. A few friends Tailele contacted declined to be interviewed for the book for that reason, Tailele said.

“(Sopper) had a lot of struggles in her life. That’s a key part of this story. It’s not just that she had this dream, but the struggles she went through to achieve it,” Tailele said. “She never gave up. She was determined she was going to be a gymnastics coach. She had finally reached it. She was right there, getting on the plane to go to fulfill her dream, but she was on Flight 77.”

Sopper’s remains are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Her name is on the 9/11 memorials in New York City and at the Pentagon. There are gymnastics scholarships and programs in her name, and a JAG Corps conference room in the Pentagon is being named for her.

Even though nearly 14 years have passed since her daughter’s death, Kminek, who now lives in Florida, says it’s still a mix of joy and pain to talk about her.

“(Doing this book) has been very emotional,” she said, “but I really wanted to tell Mari-Rae’s story.”

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