Six months after Nicole Gross' life was forever changed by the Boston bombings, she will return to the pool for the first time. The former University of Tennessee swimmer, who grew up outside of Baltimore and trained alongside a kid named Michael Phelps, will wade into the blue water today and escape.
Six months since bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, killing three people and injuring more than 260, Gross has learned how to walk again. After her legs were mangled as she waited for her mother to finish the race, the 31-year-old triathlete and coach is healing by relying on what saved her.
"I attribute my attitude and progression to the fact that I can tap into that inner athlete," Gross said about her rehab progress. "I don't even care if I ever run again. I just want to do daily functioning things. It's given me a new perspective on life, what really matters, what recovery really means."
A photo of Gross moments after the blast came to define the shock and tragedy of that day. Surrounded by blood, she propped herself up on the pavement, her knees bent, her red shirt tattered and running sneakers blown off. A sock remained on her left foot. She stared ahead. Was this real? Where was her husband? Where was her sister? Would another bomb finish everyone off? Gross let out the scream of her life.
Sitting in a coffee shop not far from her home last week, Gross sighed deeply when asked about the photograph. "It took me a long time before I was ready to see the picture," she said. "When you're having your picture go around the world on the worst day of your life, there's a sense of intrusion that you feel, a sense of vulnerability that you have.
"But I'm not letting that picture become what people know me as. It's too dark. I'm so much more than that picture, I'm so much more than tragedy. I think it's helped me take ownership of it a little bit more where I want to be a face of resiliency."
Gross and her husband Michael, a former Tennessee swimmer as well, and her sister Erika Brannock, 29, had traveled to Boston to cheer on their mother, Carol Downing.
Gross served as her mother's coach as Downing prepared to run her first Boston Marathon at 56. For the past five years, Gross coached her from afar, sending daily workouts for other races via email. "It was a way I felt connected with her so I didn't feel as if I was running by myself," Downing said.
They planned to make their mother a collage of photos that would chronicle the Boston experience. The day before the marathon, they went to the start and posed for pictures. On race day, they took photos of her boarding the bus to the start.
They took some shots near the water, photos they never got to see. "I wish my sister and I could have that picture because that's the last picture we have of my sister standing on both legs. All the film is evidence so we won't ever get it back," Nicole Gross said. "It's heartbreaking."
Feelings of guilt
Gross, her husband and sister decided to stand at the 26-mile mark, because that is where a special marker was placed to honor the 26 victims of the Newtown, Conn., shooting. They wanted to feel the energy and support. It was the perfect spot; they were up close and center.
But the plan was to watch their mother finish. Brannock didn't want to move from that spot. "We really have to take pictures of mom finishing," Nicole Gross told her sister.
At the finish, Michael Gross stood a few feet away to get a good vantage point as the sisters pushed their way towards the front. "I saw a couple of people come out of the crowd," Nicole said. "Right when I saw them leave, I pushed her to get in as you would at a concert. That's when the bombs went off."
Their mother was safely four-tenths of a mile away from the finish line. Michael Gross avoided serious injury. Brannock lost her left leg and her right leg was severely injured. Fifty days after the blast, she became the last marathon bombing survivor to leave a Boston hospital.
"For the longest time I felt a lot of guilt with that. If I didn't push my sister into it, what would have happened?" Nicole Gross said. Brannock has helped Nicole move on from that thought, insisting her older sister pushed her out of further harm's way.
"If we stood where we were maybe she wouldn't be here anymore," Nicole Gross said. "She's helped with the guilt I was feeling. I know I didn't cause it. It just happened. My sister told me I saved her life."
Nicole Gross has told Brannock, a preschool teacher, the same. "I know if she wasn't so positive it would be hard for me," Nicole said. "She has always had a heart of gold, gives the best hugs, is happy-go-lucky Erika. She's thankful that she's alive and that she has her right leg."
Gross spent 34 days at a Boston hospital. Her quads are scarred with incisions, skin graphs closed all that was missing from her lower legs and ankles. A rod was inserted where she broke two bones in her lower left leg. One of her Achilles was nearly severed and she's had several surgeries on her feet, with the last one scheduled for January. She needed 20 staples in her abdomen after a vascular filter to prevent blood clotting had to be removed. She also had surgery to repair a hole in her ear drum.
If not for her level of fitness, Gross may have lost a leg, her doctors and physical therapists told her. After college, she competed with the U.S. triathlon team and endured two Ironman competitions, including the world championship in Kona, Hawaii.
"Strong bones, strong muscles, strong tendons helped me overcome that impact. I think it saved my life," she said. "There's no telling, but the severity of these injuries, you can see in the X-rays, it should have gone all the way through."
A pool for escape
Amid the outpouring of support, including fundraisers that have helped pay the family's medical bills, a Tennessee orange scrapbook brings tears to Gross' eyes. The cover reads "Be strong, stay strong" and is filled with heartfelt letters from members of the Vols swimming community. "Tennessee swimming has blown my mind," she said. "It just means more than I'll ever be able to say to them."
Nicole Gross was always drawn to swimming because it allowed her to focus. While some grow bored after years of staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool, swimming took her to another place. "It just put me in a different world," she said.
Bob Bowman, her coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, knows exactly what his standout breaststroker meant. "One of the things we talk about in our program is that when you come in these doors, you leave everything else outside," said Bowman, who coached Gross during her high school years and during breaks home from college. "All your problems in school, at home, whatever. It's a great way to go somewhere else."
She would like her first time in the water to be, symbolically, six months after the bombing, in the same pool where she had trained most of her triathletes. Her physical therapist, Katie Cusack, believes the water workout will help as much mentally as physically.
The family will also be together next month in Charlotte for the Thunder Road Marathon, which is a qualifier for Boston. Carol will race and Gross will serve as the starter.
Brannock recently received her prosthetic leg and is working towards walking a few feet across the finish line. "I'm excited to try to do that," Brannock said. Nicole and Michael Gross will join her as well.
"I'll be excited to have everyone at the finish line together, which was supposed to happen in April but didn't," their mother said. "It will be emotional."
When Downing received an invite to race in the 2014 Boston Marathon, she sent her coach an email. "Should I do it?" she wrote.
"ABSOLUTELY YES! YOU NEED TO DO IT," Gross wrote back.
On April 18, 2014, they will return to Boston. Gross will be coaching her mother again.
"We're all going back," Gross said. "We just won't be standing at the same spot. Nope." Then she laughed.