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One year after attack, Michael and Nicole Gross seek closure with return to Boston Marathon

By Ben Frederickson

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The voice on the other end of the phone paused. A year later, after countless recounts, it’s still hard.

“The day started off as best as we could have imagined,” Michael Gross said.

April 15, 2013 was a bright and clear day in Boston, and the city buzzed with the kind of energy that becomes contagious when runners and those who support them gather.

Michael and his wife, Nicole Gross, both former University of Tennessee swimmers, came to the Boston Marathon from their Charlotte, N.C., home to cheer for Nicole’s mother. Carol Downing was running the race for the first time.

But two bombs planted by two terrorists turned the national celebration into a nightmare. Three died. More than 260 were injured. Michael, Nicole and their loved ones were among those whose lives were forever changed by the blasts of ball bearings and nails on Boylston Street.

As the family started to piece things back together, it knew they would need to return. Sometimes moving forward requires going back.

“We’re looking at the anniversary as the end of one chapter,” Michael Gross said. “And the start of something else.”

They positioned themselves near mile marker No. 26.

Nicole Gross moved forward with her sister, Erika Brannock. They inched as close to the finish line as possible, wanting to be near their mother when she crossed.

Michael Gross, camera in hand, held back to get a better shot.

“I remember looking through the lens and seeing the race clock, then feeling the bomb go off,” he said. “From there it was pretty much chaos.”

He escaped with minor burns and shrapnel wounds.

“I was out shopping,” said Susan Gross, Michael’s mother. “He was screaming on the phone that there was an explosion and he couldn’t find Nicole.”

Her left shoe had been blown off. The explosion ripped holes into the sleeve of her red shirt, which matched the color of the blood pooling on the concrete beneath her. She sat with her right hand behind her, stunned.

“Everything had an eerie silence about it,” she said. “I remember waking up, and I was looking down the street instead of at the finish line flag. My world literally got flipped upside down. My first vision was looking down and seeing my legs blown up.”

That moment, captured by Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki, appeared in newspapers nationwide, including the front of the USA Today that Susan Gross picked up before she boarded a flight from Knoxville to Boston the day after the attack.

“The horrible image people had when they first knew what happened,” Nicole Gross said. “That was a picture of me. It was very weird. I felt exposed.”

Perhaps the change of Nicole Gross’ opinion about that photo is the best reminder that there are milestones on the path to recovery.

The fitness trainer couldn’t stand the image early in her month-long hospital stay in Boston, a stretch that required a barrage of surgical procedures to the legs and feet that propelled her through pools in college and triathalons afterward.

Then she met Tlumacki when the photographer visited the hospital. They hugged and took a photo beside one another. The old image, the one she had despised, became a reminder for her mantra.

“I was going to change my face, and not be one of tragedy, but be somebody who was stronger and more resilient because of this,” she said.

There were other milestones.

Michael Gross, 33, can sit with his back to the door in a restaurant, something his shaken nerves made impossible in the immediate aftermath.

Nicole Gross, 32, has been back in the pool “a few times.” Not bad for someone who had to relearn how to walk before the couple could go back to Charlotte.

Brannock, 30, is teaching again in Baltimore after she lost her left leg above the knee and was hospitalized for nearly two months.

From the Tellico Village home they retired to while their son was at UT, Susan Gross and her husband, Alan, recalled watching the waves of support roll in.

A box of orange sweatsuits arrived at the Boston hospital, compliments of the Tennessee swim team.

The inspirational scrapbook Nicole Gross received from her former teammates is still a source of comfort to this day.

Actor Kevin Spacey wished the couple well during a visit. First Lady Michelle Obama stopped by. A politician from North Carolina took them to the State of the Union Address.

There have been fund raisers in Knoxville and Charlotte, charity races and the Be Strong Stay Strong campaign that pooled money to help cover the medical expenses of Brannock, her sister and brother in law.

Every bit of support nudged them forward, toward Monday’s milestone. It’s been on the horizon ever since Downing, who was stopped a half mile from the finish line due to the attack, received an invitation to run again.

“I don’t think there was any doubt in their mind,” Susan Gross said. “It’s part of the healing process.

Downing will be joined by Brian Gross, one of Michael’s brothers, who received an invitation to the Boston Marathon despite not qualifying. They will be two of the more than 35,000 expected to make the 26.2 mile trek.

Watching from Boylston Street will be Michael and Nicole Gross, Brannock, Susan and Alan Gross, and a support network that includes aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

“The deed is not done,” Nicole Gross said. “We all have to have closure for that, a sense that no matter what happened last year, we are here now. And we are stronger and better for it.”

The couple will watch their loved ones cross the finish line, like they were supposed to a year ago.

When it happens, they will celebrate how far they’ve come.

Then they will keep moving on.

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