Marathon victims and sisters Nicole Gross and Erika Brannock give each other support
Bill Greene/Globe Staff
The photo of a stunned, bloodied woman in a shredded red shirt went viral after the Boston Marathon bombings, and became a symbol of the city’s horror and shock. On Friday the woman in the photo, Nicole Gross of Charlotte, N.C., was released from Brigham and Women’s Hospital after spending three and a half weeks recovering from serious leg injuries and damage to her ear drums.
Sitting with her husband, Michael, in her hospital room, Gross looked -- and felt -- like a different person than the one in the photo. “We were fortunate to experience Patriots Day, and the energy surrounding the event was amazing,” said Gross, 31. “It ended in tragedy, but it doesn’t take away the beauty that we saw.”
On April 15, the couple was standing near the finish line with Nicole’s sister Erika Brannock, waiting for the women’s mother to finish her first Boston Marathon. Brannock lost her left leg above the knee in the blast, and remains hospitalized.
Michael Gross, who was taking photos, was hospitalized overnight for scrapes, burns, and lacerations to his arms. “In fact, another piece of asphalt fell out today,” he said with a slight smile.
Wearing a mint-green sweatshirt and knee-length pants that reveal heavily bandaged and stitched legs, Gross sat with her arm linked through her husband’s. They both wore “Boston Strong” and “Brigham and Women’s Strong” bracelets. Her husband, who spent every night in a chair next to her bed, reminded her to keep her legs elevated. She suffered two breaks in her left leg, a nearly-severed Achilles tendon in the right, and some hearing loss.
“I have to re-learn how to walk,” said Gross, who was taken directly from the Brigham to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown. “I’ll put one step in front of the other, one day at a time.”
A champion collegiate swimmer, triathlete, personal trainer, and coach, Gross credits her fitness with her recovery. Her husband agrees. “It’s the mindset of a competitive athlete,” he said. “You spend many hours in very rigorous training, and that’s how we’re approaching this (recovery) as well. It’s another hurdle to jump over.”
His wife nodded. “Another marathon.”
Michael Gross, who will be 33 on Sunday, is the general manager of the Charlotte Athletic Club, where Nicole is a personal trainer. In 2010, she did the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii -- swam 2.4 miles, rode 112 miles, ran 26.2 miles -- with a stress fracture. She was one of the top finishers in her age group.
Though they didn’t want to talk about the bombings, the couple spoke of how their lives have been changed.
“I want people to know that despite the tragic situation, there’s been a positivity that has come from all of this,” Nicole said. “A new life path has been given us, and we’re going to be moving forward with a lot of momentum. My level of activity will be much more limited, my job as a fitness trainer will be affected.”
Both spoke glowingly of Boston and its people, who have sent them bags of cards and letters, including some from schoolchildren. “We’ve seen the true spirit of Boston,” Michael said, “and it’s fantastic.”
They’ve also received lots of support from friends, clients, and strangers in Charlotte, who started a fundraising drive for them (bestrongstaystrong.net). Cadie Jessup hired Nicole as her swim coach after she lost her left leg in 2009 to complications from a blood clot.
“Nicole just took me under her wing and made me feel comfortable and I got my confidence back,” said Jessup, who works at Wells Fargo in Charlotte. “She believed in me when many people didn’t.” Gross coached Jessup through her first triathlon, seven months after getting her prosthetic leg.
Just after the bombing, Gross, from her hospital bed, had a favor to ask her client. Would Jessup, who had done so well after losing a leg, meet with Nicole’s sister, who had just lost hers?
“That connection with Cadie is definitely meaningful for me,” Gross said Friday. “It’s something I can use as a way to help my sister get back. She has a long road ahead of her.”
Erika Brannock, 29, is a pre-school teacher in suburban Baltimore. The sisters, in different Boston hospitals, nonetheless have spoken to each other by telephone most days.
“FaceTime is a beautiful thing,” said Gross. “My sister is amazing. She’s so strong. She helps me get through my dark times.”
Both of them, she said, are proud of their mother, Carol Downing, who was blocks from the finish line when the bombs went off. “At 57, to qualify for Boston, that’s pretty outstanding,” said Nicole, who was her mother’s marathon coach.
Despite what happened at their first Boston Marathon, Michael and Nicole Gross remain huge fans and hope to return for another. Over the years, they've traveled to dozens of races and marathons, none of them quite like Boston.
“Nothing matches what this city does,” said Michael. “It’s a big party. Nothing else compares to the spirit and the support the runners receive. The Boston Marathon is just amazing.”Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org