More than a month after a bomb exploded and changed her life forever, Nicole Gross is finally home.
The 31-year-old fitness trainer arrived at Charlotte Douglas International Airport at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, moving gingerly on crutches with bandages still covering her lower legs, which were mostly hidden beneath a blue ankle-length skirt.
But despite the injuries she suffered at the Boston Marathon April 15, Gross repeatedly flashed a bright smile – even through tears – as she and her husband, Michael, were greeted by a small gathering of friends and family who had been waiting weeks for this moment.
“I feel so out of the loop,” she said to them, beaming through exhaustion as she sank into an armchair at the airport’s Wilson Air Center, encircled by balloons, flowers, a welcome-home poster and TV cameras. “I want to know what’s going on – how workouts are going, (you’re) training for what?”
This is the Nicole Gross that people who know her best talk about.
Sure, she suffered two broken bones in her left leg. Yes, the Achilles tendon in her right leg was almost severed. She also lost some of her hearing due to the blast.
But the accomplished swimmer and triathlete hasn’t lost her spirit.
“I know that I’ll take my competitiveness into my rehab,” Gross said later to the Observer, nestled on a small sofa next to her husband after much of the crowd had dissipated. “Whatever happens from there will be great. If it’s competing or if it’s just casually working out, at least I can be active again.”
Following the explosions that killed three people and injured 264 others last month, Gross spent 3 1/2 weeks at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, then another week at the nearby Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, located just a mile north.
Her sister, Erika Brannock, remains hospitalized in Boston. Brannock lost her left leg above the knee in the blast as they waited near the finish line for their mother, Carol Downing, who was running her first marathon. Downing was not injured.
The Grosses said leaving Boston – a city which neither had visited before – was bittersweet. “We were there for such a long period of time,” said Michael Gross, 33, who was hospitalized the night of the bombings for cuts and burns. “It’ll kind of be a second home for us forever.”
And as the small private plane they traveled on neared Charlotte, Nicole Gross began feeling nervous.
“It was like going into the unknown,” she said. “When we flew out of Charlotte (last month), life was normal; everything was comfortable. Now we’re going into figuring out what our new life path is going to be here.”
The plan for now, she said, is to spend a few weeks focusing on her recovery, but also on getting “a little bit stronger” for her sister. Gross hopes to return to Boston later in the spring or summer to see Brannock: “I feel like I’ve got a purpose in all this to help her out.”
Meanwhile, the orders of business are: Reunite with their cat, Chloe; reunite with their Siberian huskies, Kina and Navi; sleep in their own bed (“Laying flat for once would be really nice,” said Michael Gross, who spent more than a month sleeping in couches and chairs, never leaving Nicole’s side); and “just completely chill out,” Nicole Gross said.
“We were talking about it last night. We said, ‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be sitting with our feet up watching TV,’ ” said Michael Gross, wearing a gray “Be Strong” T-shirt and – like his wife – a blue “Be Strong Stay Strong” bracelet.
“Watching TV,” Nicole Gross said, wistfully. “Eating some good takeout from somewhere.”
Eventually, the couple would like to escape to a far-off beach for some more serious R & R.
“One of the hospitals had TVs that had a relaxation channel, and it was just imagery of beautiful places and calming music,” Michael Gross said. “We were watching that and Nicole turned to me and said, ‘Babe, we need a vacation.’ ”
“It’ll definitely happen. I’ll make it happen,” Nicole Gross said, with a smile and a familiar look of determination. “I’ve been laying around so much that the thought of laying around on a beach isn’t ideal right now. So I want to get to a point where I can exhaust myself, where I’m like, ‘Alright, I just need a beach vacation.’ ”
More than anything, though, she’s just happy to be out of the hospital, happy to be feeling better and happy to be home.
“It’s just the little things now. To walk, to get in a car, to get on a plane, to feel the fresh air blowing in my face is – it’s just special. I mean, everything has changed. ... Enjoy the simple things in life. It’s so true right now.”
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