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Forever Strong: Nicole Gross' Boston Story

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The same passion, persistence and athlete’s attitude that was central in Nicole Gross’ life as a triathlete and coach has also been the driving force in her recovery.

One year ago, Nicole stood alongside her sister and husband at the finish of the Boston Marathon. It was a special weekend to support their mom, Carol, whom Nicole coached and encouraged on her journey to Boston.

Nicole, a USA Triathlon Certified Coach, soaked in the energy of Marathon Monday and was thrilled to cheer for her mom as she crossed the finish line — just like Carol had done so many times at Nicole’s swim meets and triathlons over the years.

Nicole GrossBut before Carol could complete the race, their lives were flipped upside down.

Nicole and her sister, Erika, were standing a few feet from where the first bomb went off. In a moment, the joyous energy of the world’s most historic marathon turned to terror, shock and chaos. Nicole knew tragedy had struck, and felt helpless lying on the ground, unable to get up.

“I remember looking down and having a clear vision; seeing legs that were once capable of standing and running. But I had no ability to stand up and run for safety,” Nicole says.

The explosion fractured two bones in Nicole’s lower leg, nearly severed her Achilles tendon and ruptured her eardrum — but it wouldn’t tear apart her family, strength or passion for the endurance community.

“I’ve always known she was strong, but I’ve seen her more determined than ever to work to get her strength back,” Carol says, proud of the way her daughter has handled her recovery.

The Road to Recovery
After 34 days in the hospital and a year of vigorous rehabilitation, surgeries and physical therapy, Nicole has relearned how to stand, how to walk and how to swim. This April, she’ll be participating in the B.A.A. 5K, the Saturday before the 118th Boston Marathon.

But Nicole’s recovery hasn’t come without challenges. As a former swimmer at the University of Tennessee, Nicole’s competitive edge and love for endurance sports led her to triathlon, where she excelled as an athlete and coach. Exercise had always been her comfortable, familiar place — and when it was taken away, she had to find new ways to heal.

“I’ve had to really learn how to handle all of this without the go-to — exercise. So I’m learning a whole lot more about me from the inside out,” Nicole says. “I’m learning healthy ways to cope that don’t require breaking a sweat or pushing my body.”

Nicole’s husband, Michael, witnesses her inner athlete on a daily basis in the way she faces tough physical and mental challenges.

“She understands that not every day will be a success and that hard work and positivity will see her through to the finish. Two key attributes to being successful — be it in triathlon or life,” Michael says.

Six months after the tragedy, Nicole’s wounds had healed enough for her to get back in the pool — a moment that brought her full circle.

“I had goose bumps throughout my whole body during that first 50 freestyle that I dove in and completed. It was a nice reminder of where I started, and that was always in the pool,” she says.

Nicole has come a long way, and a lot of her progress is due to her positive, competitive spirit. When describing her mental attitude, Carol says, if you ask her to do 10 reps, she’ll do 20.

quoteA Nation of Support
While there’s still a long road of recovery ahead, Nicole is hopeful for the future, and thankful she isn’t on this journey alone.

Her family has given her strength and support. From her husband, whom she describes as her rock and everyday hero, to her sister, who has handled the loss of her left leg and the setbacks in her recovery with courage and positivity.

Nicole also has found hope in her athletes, including Cadie Jessup, a single-leg, above-knee amputee whom Nicole coached through her first triathlon back in 2010.

“Cadie has been a huge inspiration to me before, during and after Boston,” Nicole says. And her return to an active lifestyle is a constant encouragement to Nicole and Erika.

What happened in Boston shook the entire endurance community, and Nicole has been humbled by the generosity of others.

She’s received an overwhelming amount of support from coaches, athletes, medical staff and her home city of Charlotte, N.C., among many others.

“Just knowing that people cared enough to reach out in whatever capacity, through cards, through emails and texts, to wanting to take care of my athletes while I had to be forced to take care of myself, is just tremendous,” Nicole says.

Along with her husband, Nicole is eager to pay it forward to the community that helped save their lives. Even in her hospital bed, she was ready to give back.

“It wasn’t long before Nicole caught wind that one of her doctors was training for a triathlon. He was without a coach until Nicole took over his training program and began coaching him from her hospital bed,” Michael says. “Her passion for helping others achieve greatness knows no bounds.”

Their Boston Marathon Finish
Nicole is coaching her mom again — to her Boston finish.

Having some quiet time to work on Carol’s training plan has been a blessing for Nicole as it gives her a sense of normalcy.

“I send her text messages literally five to six times a day and she gives me updates about her run workouts,” Nicole says.

They share a special connection through training that helps close the gap in distance from not living near one other. When Carol is out on a run, she says it feels like her daughter is right beside her, and it helps her to work harder.

“There is a very special bond that we have this year as she trains me to finish the race,” Carol says. “This, more than any other race, has a special meaning for us. It will close a chapter in our lives and hopefully be a very healing moment for our family.”

Nicole and her family will return to Boston for the anniversary of April 15 and will stay through Marathon Monday in celebration of the nation’s strength, bravery and unity.

“It’s going to be magical,” Nicole says, and she knows the race’s energy will be unlike any other year — past or future — because of how the city has been so resilient. “Runners are going to have a lot of reasons to be at the start and finish line.”

It’s not too late to help Nicole and her family through the Be Strong Stay Strong fund. For more information, visit www.bestrongstaystrong.net.

Photo by Kim Hummel Photography — www.kimhummel.com

WATCH VIDEOS BELOW FROM NICOLE AND MIKE GROSS AND RACE DIRECTOR DAVE MCGILLIVRAY ON OVERCOMING THE TRAGEDIES OF THE 2013 BOSTON MARATHON
(Produced by the Universal Sports Network; Also watch Universal Sports for exclusive national coverage of the 2014 Boston Marathon)
"Run As One: Nicole and Mike Gross, Survivors"
Nicole and Michael Gross were standing near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon to cheer her mother in the legendary race when the first bomb exploded. Nicole, who grew up outside of Baltimore and trained alongside Michael Phelps before attending the University of Tennessee, suffered severe injuries to her lower limbs and became the focus of a photo seen around the world. A triathlete and fitness coach, Nicole now has a renewed sense of purpose and looks forward to giving back to a community that has helped her family to recover.
 
"Run As One: Dave McGillivray, Boston Marathon Race Director"
On April 21, 2014, the world will run as one with the City of Boston and come together for the legendary Boston Marathon. In honor of the perseverance and triumph of the human spirit, the “Run as One” series tells the personal stories of those directly affected by the tragic events of the 2013 Boston bombings. As told by survivors, first responders, medical personnel and race officials, these moving first-hand accounts demonstrate strength of character and a resilient will to move forward.

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