Bonnie Frankel left the fast lane lifestyle of Los Angeles in hopes of getting on the fast track to fulfilling a dream. She battled hip replacement surgery almost four years ago, decided to pack up her Ford Focus and landed on the doorstep of friends in Palm Springs. She left everything behind to move forward.
Today, Frankel thinks she’s headed in the right direction. Her goal? A trip to the Olympic Track and Field Trials on July 9-18 in Sacramento.
“I knew I came to Palm Springs for a reason,” said Frankel, 59. “It was fate that brought me here.”
A late bloomer in track who always had the ability but never the coaching, Frankel trained in the early 1990’s with former Olympian Tommie Smith while pursuing a degree at Santa Monica College. When Frankel arrived in Palm Springs and sought help training, former Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos, a teammate of Smith’s on the 1968 track and field squad, was there. Smith and Carlos are two of the most recognizable figures in American sports history. At the 1968 medal ceremony, the two raised their fists as a symbol of black power during the playing of the national anthem.
“I was known for breaking barriers,’’ said Frankel, who helped overturn an NCAA eligibility rule that stipulated athletes must complete their eligibility within five years of first enrolling in college. “So was Tommie … and John Carlos.”
In the spring of 2003, Frankel started running on the track at Palm Springs High School. She often talked to members of the school’s maintenance staff and had friends who were Palm Springs and Palm Desert graduates who told her about Carlos. Retired from coaching, but still working at Palm Springs High School in the in-house suspension program, Carlos wasn’t interested at first. When the two met, he “found out what I was all about,” Frankel said.
Frankel, who competed in college in her mid-40’s and had won national titles in Masters-level events before her hip surgery, trained herself back into shape. Carlos was impressed with her work ethic and her attitude. “I observed that she has the desire to accomplish something,” said Carlos, who set up an exercise and running routine for Frankel.”She was not in bad shape for her age, physically sound. She’s an aggressive type with a good work ethic. I knew it would be a challenge for her and for me.”
If Frankel stays on track, Carlos thinks she has a shot to reach the Trials. Throughout the spring, Frankel will enter qualifying events where she must clock 2:01 or better in the 800-meter run or at least 4:10 in the 1,500 to qualify for a spot in the Olympic Trials. The deadline for a bid to the Trials is July 1.
“If she was a sprinter, it would be difficult,” he said. “However, she’s a distance runner — anywhere between a half-mile and two miles. We see here in the U.S. that in Europe older people are more successful (in track and field) and that plays in her favor.”
From now through July, Carlos expects Frankel to obtain certified times in masters competitions, all-conference meets and open track and field competitions across the state. That will allow her to advance to higher-level Olympic qualifying meets. “The main thing we’ll look for is that the mind is in tune and the body is not doing more than she’s capable of,’’ he said. “If that goes well, we can go to the next stage.”
Carlos plans to run Frankel against her peer group initially. Then, once they reach that level, the two will move on. “What I get from Bonnie is she’s a fighter,” he said. “She’s fought situations, she’s fought health problems, physical problems and academic problems. She’s a fighter and she goes into that with an attitude and work ethic in mind. With that consistency, she could do well. We would like to make Bonnie the best she could be. She impressed me with her desire, and I’m going to see what I can do to help her.”
Frankel has fought the emotional and physical strain of breast cancer, her mother’s suicide and divorce. She returned to college following a 20-year hiatus and battled the NCAA over an eligibility ruling and won. She’s coached at the college level and yearned to return to the track to aid in her physical therapy following hip surgery. “The doctors knew I wanted to qualify for the Olympics,’’ she said. “They said, ‘(You) don’t have a normal hip, how can you do that?’ ”
Frankel isn’t making a comeback, she’s still chasing a dream. At age 59, she’s an accomplished Master’s Division national champion in the 800 (she won her race on a deteriorated hip in 1996.) But Frankel doesn’t have the background of Hall-of Famer Edwin Moses, now 48, who is also expected to attempt a return for the Olympic Games in Athens.
However, Carlos believes Frankel has a similar chance as Moses. Moses is a legend on the track, a former world-record holder in the 400 meter hurdles, an Olympic medalist who left the track to compete in bobsledding at the World Championships a decade ago. “Edwin is looking to make a comeback and would be satisfied to make it to the (Olympic) trials,” said Carlos, during a weekly training session with Frankel. “That’s the same as Bonnie. When you get to the Trials, anything is possible once you’re there. If you can deal with your emotions, you can do that in every day life, like getting over frustration, you have a chance.”
Frankel’s regimen began with stretching and more exercise around the track. Very little running was involved. She is as flexible as a college gymnast and bounces around like a teenager. Leg raises, building muscle in the buttocks and stomach, pushups, situps and toe touches became routine during the past two months.
“We have until June (July 1 is the deadline for Trials qualification), but I wanted to be ready in January,” Carlos said. As each week passes, Frankel is eager for each workout. “I love the feeling,” she said. “It is out of this world. … It feels good. I love the struggle.”
Today, Frankel is running up to five miles a day five times a week and is pushing herself in the final 800 meters. She’s working on the little things that turned Carlos into an Olympic medalist — arms swinging, torso pulled back and upright, fingers held tightly.
Carlos said there are certain points in a race when you know it’s time to make your move. He’s looking for Frankel to maintain posture, be up on her toes — and be on her toes. “A lot of people get bumped, and you have to know how to recover,” he said.
Right now, Frankel said she’s running logically — not with her heart. “There are things I still have to correct,” she said. “But when I do …”
Added Carlos: “If I didn’t know she could do this, I would have been gone.”
Still, the two have work to do — and Frankel takes every step like every day — one at a time.
From The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA)
By Patti Myers
Published March 1, 2004