Marathon Survivor Stares Down Tsarnaev -- And Her Fears -- In Court
Two weeks ago, Rebekah Gregory DiMartino finally faced a moment she'd been dreading for months: She walked into a Boston courtroom, went up to the witness stand and sat down about 5 feet from the man who'd been the source of countless nightmares for her since the Boston Marathon bombings.
DiMartino, 27, was one of the survivors to testify in the ongoing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- and one of the 260 people injured near the finish line in April 2013. She and her family were standing near the second bomb when it exploded, and DiMartino was wounded so severely that she remained in the hospital for 56 days, underwent more than 35 surgeries and ultimately had her left leg amputated.
DiMartino now wears a prosthetic leg and has been training to run this year's Boston Marathon, and espnW has been following her on her journey. We talked with DiMartino again, now that she's done testifying and is back to training.
You previously said that you've been fearing the trial for quite some time. What was the experience like?
At first I was an absolute nervous wreck. But I knew that I needed to help in any way I could with the trial, so that's why I agreed to testify. When I got there, I had this flood of emotion. It was so hard seeing the other [bombing survivors], even though a lot of them are doing very well. It's one thing to look at my life and to see the way that it's impacted me, but seeing the families that lost loved ones and people who are still going through surgeries, it breaks my heart. I felt very raw, and it was hard to handle.
I had seen where the witness stand was going to be and where [Tsarnaev] would be sitting, and it was only about 4 or 5 feet away from each other, and I'd been thinking, I don't feel comfortable sitting this close. I really didn't want to, so I'd asked the prosecutor if we could potentially move the witness stand farther away and he'd promised to check into it. About 20 minutes before I got on the stand to testify, I was told that they had been able to move the witness stand for me. But for some reason, at that moment, it kind of clicked with me that I didn't want them to move it. That would mean that I was afraid of him. I've spent the last two years of my life being scared and fearful of what the [Tsarnaev brothers] had done and what other people might be capable of doing, and I just wanted to take that back that day. So I told them, "Don't move the witness stand. Sorry for the inconvenience, but I want to sit directly in front of him."
When I walked into the courtroom, I made sure not to limp. I'm still getting used to my leg and I have a pretty good gait, but you can still tell that I wear a prosthetic. I tried so hard to walk as straight as I could up there with as much confidence as I could. The first thing I did when I got up there was look at [Tsarnaev]. He never looked my way, but I kept glancing at him a couple of times because I wanted him to see that what he tried to destroy, he didn't destroy. That he actually made us stronger, and that I'm stronger because of everything that I've been through.
It was a very liberating feeling to be able to do that, and in a way it did give me some closure. But reality also hit hard. I'm away from Boston -- I'm not affected every single day because [living in] Texas gives me a little bit of an escape from it. I'm of course constantly reminded that I don't have a leg because someone blew me up, but it's not a part of everyday life like it is for people in Boston. So it was really hard for me to see the struggles and the emotions that people still have from it.
What went through your mind the first time you saw Tsarnaev?
I just got so sad because here is this kid, essentially. He was 19 then, and is 21, I think, now, and he's facing either the death penalty or life in prison. He's completely wasted what could have been a beautiful life. I just can't comprehend how people have that much hatred in their heart, and I just kept looking at him, thinking, Man, what if that was my son?
Was it hard to talk in court about the day of the bombing?
I've told my story many times, but in the courtroom it felt like I was telling it for the first time. It was a very different type of emotion, and it's hard to explain it. Knowing that what I was saying was directly impacting an important decision that the jurors have to make was hard. I felt a lot of responsibility.
You wore a skirt to court, even in the subfreezing Boston temperatures. I'm assuming that was on purpose to show off your leg.
Yes, it was. People have sometimes asked me why I don't cover up my prosthetic. Well, it's a part of me now. I could spend the whole rest of my life trying to blend it in and cover it up, but I want to embrace what happened and show people, yes, I have a fake leg, but it's going to be the coolest fake leg you've ever seen. And I'm going to show it off proudly. This was the way to do that. I actually wore sneakers with a skirt to court because I haven't gotten the hang of dress shoes yet. But they were super-cute Coach sneakers!
Will you continue to follow the trial?
I thought originally I was not going to follow anything -- that I would just do what I had to do and then get out of there -- but I have been following along, and mainly it's been out of support for the other survivors. I have a different view on it now, I guess, now that my part is over and I'm not dreading it anymore. I have this sense of peace about it now that I didn't have before, and it's a lot easier for me to watch and listen to it now than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Once you got back from Boston, you had a scary fall that forced you to rest your leg for a few days. What happened?
Let's just say I don't know when to stop doing things. My trainer at the gym has been pushing me really hard because he knows where I want to be and how far I have to get there, so I was already pretty sore, and I've been having so much phantom pain. It's probably one of the worst things about my amputation so far because it feels like my left leg is still there, and I feel like I can still wiggle my foot. Even when I have my leg in my prosthetic, I still feel like my old foot is in my shoe, instead of the prosthetic foot. And somehow it's painful, too -- like my brain is still processing the pain that my foot had during the last two years before the amputation. It's very bizarre.
So last week, I went to get up when I was sitting, feeling like I had two legs. I fell, and busted part of the residual wound open. I was gushing blood, and really stressed that I had done some serious damage but fortunately everything was OK and it was just a scare. But I was a little freaked out to say the least. Thankfully, now I'm back and able to train again.
What are you doing in the gym?
I'm doing a lot of walking on the treadmill and doing the StairMaster and endurance stuff like that. I'm focusing on strengthening my legs a lot so I've been doing the squat machine this week. I feel like I'm getting a lot stronger, and I can tell that working out five days a week does pay off.
Have you changed the way you eat now that you're in training?
That is the hardest part. I'm trying to eat well so that I have more energy. I've been trying to eat a lot more protein and cut back on all the sweets that I love so much. This is my first week of major clean eating because I've been thinking, OK, I've gotta get serious. I've had a couple of cheat days for sure these past couple of weeks. And a little more wine than I probably should have had after the trial, too.
What's next for you?
I leave for Italy next Thursday, so I'm training and trying to repack. I've been asked to speak at the Marathon for Peace and at the Vatican, which is an incredible honor. I'm very humbled by the opportunity, and I don't feel very deserving of it, I guess. I'm going to run a mile of the marathon -- to cross the finish line and to convey that my life is moving forward and that obstacles are inevitable in life but how you deal with them is extremely optional.
Italy has been on my bucket list, so I've been researching it and looking at all sorts of things to see on Pinterest!
And then there's the Boston Marathon just a few weeks later. Are you still aiming to run the entire race, or can you cut yourself a little slack given all the setbacks?
Yes! Here's what I tell everyone: I'm training to run the whole thing, but I do realize, now that I've had my prosthetic leg for two months, that that is nearly impossible. I've had so many setbacks, and I'm still literally bleeding every time I run because of the prosthetic rubbing against my leg.
But if I have to, I have a hand bike -- I've gotta talk to the people in charge of the marathon about that -- and I will run the last half, at least, if I can. It depends on how I'm feeling that day and what happens before then.
espnW will be following DiMartino's training leading into Boston -- and get more here, on her Facebook page.