“What kind of year have I had?” said Bonnie Frankel. “Would crazy be enough of an answer? No? Well, then say I graduated college, won an issue, ran fifth in the nationals, gambled on not working so I could better myself and stayed alone. I don’t want another powerful man to eat me up. I won’t pair until I’m stronger.”
Bonnie Frankel turned 49 this month. And, as she would be the first to tell you, is still in the process of becoming. She opened the year as a senior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She had found out she couldn’t compete on the track team because her Division I eligibility had run out 26 years ago.
She originally entered college in 1962, did poorly and dropped out, but nonetheless started the clock on her five years of athletic eligibility. In those pre-Title IX days before the National Collegiate Athletic Association staged women’s championships the five-year eligibility rule was basically meant to prevent coaches from ripening football players for 10 or 12 years.
Bonnie Frankel had really wanted to compete in sports her senior year, if not in fall track, at least in winter swimming.
“Competition is joy, struggle, life,” she said the other day. “Women mostly exercise to get a nice body, to feel better about their breasts and themselves, but that’s only the beginning.
“Competition puts you in touch with suffering. Running up a hill is about saying you’re not a victim, that you don’t exist just to please other people. Competition takes a woman to a different place in her thinking.”
Competition, or at least the lust for it, took Bonnie Frankel to last January’s N.C.A.A. convention in Dallas, where she lobbied successfully for passage of Amendment 30, now known as the Bonnie Frankel amendment, which extended the athletic eligibility of women who had entered college before 1981, the year the N.C.A.A. began staging women’s championships.
Frankel returned home to Santa Monica, Calif., as something of a role model and a commodity. She met with agents and publicists, there was talk of a book and an infomercial, and she signed for a television movie, which seems right now to be in development hell. It will be an interesting life to screen.
Open on the former Bonnie Levitt of Westwood, Calif., seemingly sexy, dumb, uptight, a teen-age academic failure, who cruised through most of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as a willing student of life who never quite got the teachers she deserved.
When she had trouble processing information, she was told that she needed psychiatry. On to the couch! When Playboy magazine asked her to pose for a centerfold, her well-to-do parents made her button up. She was pulled back from Europe by one of her mother’s suicide attempts. She got by as a pretty pleaser, never developing herself for herself; she worked for an ad agency, cut hair, married a Beverly Hills obstetrician.
Then life got serious. Her mother killed herself. Bonnie Frankel had a mastectomy and several breast reconstructions. She was divorced. She attempted suicide herself.
Then, in the summer of 1989, at 45, she took a word-processing course at Santa Monica College, the first step toward reconstructing her life, a preparation for a real job. This time, she loved school, felt safe there, reveled in being around younger people. By this time she also knew that she could compensate for her learning problems by using a tape recorder and listening to lectures over again, by reading more slowly, by believing that she was different, not stupid.
She studied art history, political science, and ballet. To stay physically active, she took a course in recreational running taught by the 1968 Olympic gold medal winner, Tommie Smith. She was the fastest woman in the class.
She graduated from Santa Monica with an associate of arts degree in 1991, straight A’s in her last semester. In the fall she went on to Loyola Marymount, a four-year college that competes in the Division I West Coast Conference. She made the Loyola track team. There was a routine eligibility check. Hers had run out in 1967.
After changing the N.C.A.A. rule this year, she swam for Loyola, beating two women in her last meet. Last summer, she went on to Masters competition. She finished fifth in the nation in the 800-meter run for 45-49 year-old women. She is scraping by on her savings now, painting, running, swimming, thinking about law school, waiting for the next phase to find her.
Meanwhile, the television movie still needs a made-for climax, which Bonnie could provide by qualifying for the Olympics. She has switched to running the 100-meter dash, and she thinks if she can get her time down to 11.1 from the high 13’s she can deliver a spectacular freeze-frame ending.
Of course, what happens after the credits might be best of all.
“What do I want to do next year? I want to get women exercising for themselves, not for men, not to get into that one hot dress. I want them out of boots and heels, into running shoes. I’m into intergenerational mingling. Young women and older women have a lot to offer each other. I want women where I am, standing their ground, saying I’m not a victim, I’m good.”
Happy New Year, Bonnie Frankel.
By Robert Lipsyte
Published December 31, 1993