May 21 2018
How running after losing my leg has helped me find my identity and purpose.
Nicole Gross, Triathlon Coach & Boston Marathon Survivor
As Nicole Gross, 31, waited near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, she felt happy and strong. A triathlon coach and personal trainer, she was proud to have prepared her mother for the race and thrilled to be cheering alongside her sister, Erika. Gross herself was in the best shape of her life, thanks to training for a fitness competition in Charlotte, N.C., where she lives with her husband.
Then came the bombs—and everything changed. Gross remembers being blown backward by the force of the explosion. Then laying on the ground terrified another would come. A photo taken of Gross in this moment— her shirt tattered, her blond hair disheveled, her face a mask of shock—would become one of the defining images of the tragedy.
Gross was hospitalized for 33 days in Boston, recovering from two breaks in her left leg, a nearly severed right Achilles tendon and hearing damage. Her sister lost her left leg above the knee.
A swimmer in college, Gross had spent much of her adult life competing in triathlons, where she routinely netted age-group awards. When the athlete had to relearn how to walk during her recovery and rehabilitation, she applied the mental toughness acquired through years of hard training.
And in supporting her sister, she fell into another familiar role: coach.
“We rely on each other to keep our mental states positive and forward-looking,” explains Gross. “She pulls strength from me, but I also pull my strength from her.”
Now back in Charlotte, Gross continues to focus on rehabilitation. But she’s also starting to look forward to new goals with an incredibly positive outlook.
“I’m fortunate to have experienced athletic success,” she says. “Now, it’s like I’m laying a new foundation with a brand-new body. I’ll start thinking about a half Ironman, or a half marathon, but I’ll pump my own brakes and think, ‘No, just walking a 5K is going to be an amazing accomplishment.’”
She’s doing the same in her role of coach, both for her sister and her mom, who recently received an invitation to the 2014 Boston Marathon.
“She sent me an email asking what she should do,” Gross says. “I wrote back in all caps: ABSOLUTELY. YES. DO IT. It gives me a sense of purpose when I can help other people achieve that sense of accomplishment. Being part of that process is healing.”
“I am inspired by someone or something every single day—life is powerful to me in that way. People and communities who selflessly give back and pay it forward, to help improve quality of life.”
Donate to the Be Strong Stay Strong Fund, which benefits Nicole and Erika’s recovery. Visit bestrongstaystrong.net to learn more.