Bonnie Coleman, 64, Bernalillo, New Mexico
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ― Winston S. Churchill
When we asked New Mexico Senior Olympics to recommend a female athlete who exemplifies the journey to persevere through obstacles and challenges to enjoy their own optimum health and wellness, Bonnie Coleman was their immediate choice. She was named the recipient of their annual Courage Award for 2018, and when we heard her story we wholeheartedly agreed it needs to be shared.
Bonnie lives courage every day. In 1982, after earlier misdiagnoses, it was found she has multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. The disease is progressive, but physical activity and appropriate exercise can slow its progress. Three times in her life, starting with a severe episode as a teen when she could not get out of bed, the Pennsylvania native was told by doctors she wouldn’t walk again. At one point, she was in a wheelchair for five years, but rose again through exercise and persistence.
Title IX came into effect in time for Bonnie to join a new girls swim team in her senior year of high school. She continued in college and then transitioned to running three miles most days while raising her daughter and working as a special education teacher. Then came MS, and the battle to regain her strength and mobility began in earnest.
At the age of 49 and retired on disability, Bonnie moved to Albuquerque with her twin sister and fellow swimmer Connie Dayton. She had always wanted to play softball and found a team with senior players in the city’s recreation league. Next came playing in New Mexico Senior Olympics, and while her teams were outmatched due to playing mostly younger teams, it did not dampen their spirit while they enjoyed team camaraderie while competing and traveling to tournaments. In 2006, she added swimming to her sport activity for the first time since college, and in recent years she has taught herself to do discus, javelin and shot put.
Bonnie has qualified and competed in every National Senior Games since 2007, and despite her physical challenges she has earned one medal and many ribbons (4th to 8th place) at that level. She enjoys competing against her able-bodied twin and usually beats her, saying she knows one day sis will pass her in the turning tide of MS. But there’s no self-pity or doubt in her mind, even when she removes her leg braces and needs assistance to stand on the diving platform. (She could start from the water, but in Bonnie’s mind she doesn’t want the other swimmers to have an advantage over her.) In fact, in the following frank conversation, Bonnie says she could participate in Special Olympics but feels that would be unfair since she can compete in Senior Games.
The real testimony to Bonnie’s courage is that she doesn’t allow her condition to define or defeat her, even though she says there are days it feels like she has weights on her. She also has to be careful not to overdo her activities. But she believes everyone has their challenges and she wants to be seen as no different than her peers. Regardless, to the rest of us she shows heroic spirit, especially since she devotes some of her precious energy to help recruit senior softball players and serves as president of the local Senior Olympics for Sandoval county.
Bonnie Coleman’s example doesn’t leave much room for excuses for the rest of us. She tells others not to worry if they think they’re not very good or haven’t done sports in a long time, just go out there and be active because there is encouragement and support from others striving for the same thing: pursuing their own Personal Best…for life.
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Bonnie. Are you a New Mexico native?
No, I was born in a little town called Mount Pleasant southeast of Pittsburgh. There were seven of us growing up. My dad worked in the steel mills and my mother did not work until I was ten.
Did you play sports as a youth?
Not in school. We played backyard ball growing up, and when my sister and I were thirteen, we joined a recreation swim team. Our school did not have girls’ sports. We were out in the country so there really wasn’t much of any sports organized for girls. Title IX didn’t come into effect until my senior year of high school. When they started a girl’s swim team we joined. We both swam in college and I played water polo, at Slippery Rock State University. Slimy Pebble. [Laugh]
I did nothing organized after that until I turned 49.
What was your career?
I worked with the mentally and physically disabled. My original degree was in health and physical education, and then I got my masters in sports medicine. I started out as a substitute teacher and worked mostly with special education classes.
When did you start having physical problems?
When I was in high school, and once again in college, there was a period of time when I could not walk. I just woke up one day and couldn’t walk. One foot had turned in and up. It lasted some time and then went away. The doctors told me I would never walk again, but not that it was multiple sclerosis. They didn’t know what it was, either time. This was in the mid-70s.
When did you finally find out it was MS?
In 1982. My family doctor hospitalized me because I couldn’t open my left eye and my face drooped. He thought it was Bell’s Palsy. I saw a doctor who specialized in neurology, but he wouldn’t even discuss it with me. When I got home, he said it was an inflammation of the optic nerve. When I followed up with my family doctor he read me the report from the hospital that said it was MS. The next time I saw the neurologist he did not say anything about it until he was leaving. I asked, “Excuse me, do I have MS?” and he said “Yes” and walked out of the room.
Was there any suggestion to do what exercise you could to do to help slow its progress?
I had no physical therapy, I just did it on my own. I was told it would not help me. But I couldn’t tolerate not moving. [Laugh]
Time to get a new doctor!
I eventually did go to a specialist who was a medical advisor to the national MS board.
With your diagnosis, you had a new reality and had to reach deep to find the strength to fight the disease.
I used to run about three miles a day before MS, just as something to do for fitness. I’m told now that if I had not been that active before this hit me, I probably wouldn’t be walking much or not at all.
I worked for another 14 years. I was told I would eventually be bedridden, but I was determined I was going to continue. I was a single mom and my daughter was three when I was diagnosed. You gotta do what you gotta do.
In 1989 I started wearing a brace from my left leg down, and I just kept going. In 1996 it got real bad and I ended up in a wheelchair. That’s when I went on disability. On top of not being able to walk, the fatigue became very bad. In 2008 I ended up with a brace on the other leg. The one on the right goes up to my hip, and the other one only goes up to my knee.
It took me five years to go from wheelchair to forearm crutches to walking. I still use forearm crutches on occasion.
When did you come to New Mexico?
I didn’t move here from Pennsylvania until 2001. I always wanted to live in New Mexico, but I didn’t know why. I talked about it with my family, and that was the year my twin sister Connie could retire from her job. We took a short vacation to look around and decided to move out here together. We liked it because of the low humidity. My family wouldn’t let me move without having someone with me. It was a fact of life that any day I could wake up and not be able to get out of bed.
It’s amazing that despite your condition you still pursued sports. How did you get into Senior Games?
I always wanted to play softball, but there was never any organized softball around me back east and I didn’t have the time to do it. I coached my daughter’s softball team until she was 12, and I was a paid umpire for the township.
So when I moved out here I put my name in to play on a rec team with the City of Albuquerque. One of the players on my team played co-ed so I started with that. She also told me that when I turned 50 there was a senior softball team for women, and I joined in that when I could. We had to play against the 20- and 30-year-olds because there were only enough senior players to make one team. They competed in Senior Olympics, so that’s how I got involved in The Games. We went to tournaments around the country. Some were Senior Games and some weren’t.
That must have been fun for you. Did you win any tournaments?
We weren’t that good. In fact, we were bad. We still competed, but we needed people from 50 to their 70s to have enough to make a team. We loved to play and knew we wouldn’t win, but we wanted to play. In senior softball there’s a five-run rule, that’s the max you can score on a team in one inning. Our goal when we go to Nationals was to not be five-runned in every inning and score at least one run in the game. [Laugh]
In 2004 I started in New Mexico Senior Olympics. In 2005 our team was supposed to go to Nationals in Pittsburgh, which was back home for me. I made arrangements with my family to house them, but at the last minute they decided not to go.
Even though I couldn’t play, I went back home anyway and my daughter and I volunteered to help at the National Senior Games. It was then that I decided that if I wanted to go to Nationals I needed to do an individual sport, and in 2006 I started swimming. I had not been in the pool since I graduated from college, but I qualified in the state games and went to Louisville in 2007. I’ve been to every Nationals since then and have placed in every swimming event except one year. I did medal one year.
What strokes do you swim?
I swim freestyle and backstroke. I can’t do a legal breaststroke because below the knees it doesn’t work. I did try the 50 butterfly for the last couple of years ago but at the last competition my legs quit working two-thirds of the way through, so I quit doing it.
A lot of people don’t notice my braces, because in some sports you see them a lot. Now in swimming, they notice because I take them off, and sometimes I use my forearm crutches to get to the block. I don’t make an issue of it. I just go up and do my thing.
Technically, I’m eligible to do Special Olympics. But that’s not fair to the others that have more of a disability, because I can function in the non-disabled games.
We saw you also started doing discus, javelin and shot put. How did that come about?
About five years ago I decided I wanted to try something new, and field events interested me. I just went out and learned it myself. The local Senior Olympics loaned us the equipment to practice with.
This year I’m doing the field events, swimming and I’m playing on two different softball teams. I’ll be on a 60 to 64 team in the first part of the week, and then I’ll be playing on a 65 plus team.
In a way, you have to compete against two opponents: other able-bodied athletes and MS. How do you see it?
I don’t see it as any different than my twin sister who competes with me too. I never think about it-that’s just the way it is. They make a slight concession in swimming to give me time to get up on the block and get steady. I need someone’s shoulder to get up on the block and hold on until I’m steady. They tell me, “You know, you can start on the side or in the water” but then the others have an unfair advantage over me. You’re not as fast going off the other ways. As long as I can get up and get my balance, I’m good to dive.
Wait, back up. Your twin sister Connie swims and competes against you in Senior Games? That must make things interesting!
She came back to swimming a couple years after I did. She needed a knee replacement in 2005. After she recovered she started swimming again.
She’ll tell you she started swimming the 100 IM [individual medley] event because I could not swim it and she wanted to have something that I couldn’t beat her in. I beat her in high school, college and now, although she is getting closer and will eventually pass me. As this MS progresses, and it is progressing, I’m going to be slowing down even more.
Since you live in the Albuquerque area you won’t have to deal with the travel worries this time around. That should help you pace yourself and conserve energy.
I like it! [Laugh] I couldn’t have afforded to stay for a whole week out of town, so I get to do more sports with it here. There are a few days I’m not playing, and I’ll volunteer to help on those days if I can.
I’m always going to do as much as I can. I’ve learned over the years what I can do. I can’t go to the pool and swim every day. I cannot be doing activity like that every day. Most days I take a nap or at least lay down. I can’t go a whole day with regular functioning without the fatigue. There are days I feel like there are 100-pound weights on my legs and arms. Those are days you don’t do anything.
After I go to swim or do my field events, I go home and go to bed. If I go to swim meets, I swim in the morning and sleep all afternoon. It takes that much out of me. At softball tournaments, I don’t play every game all of the game. Now, at home with the senior league I’ll play the whole game because it’s just one game that day.
We’re told you find the energy and time to help organize and get others involved.
I’m president on the board of directors for Senior Olympics in Sandoval County. I was also one of the people who recruited a lot to build the Albuquerque senior women’s softball league that’s run by the Silver Gloves organization here. When I started there were maybe ten coming out. Now, there’s over 140 women coming to play. We now have a league with all senior women playing by senior rules.
You’re involved at every level – that must give you motivation to keep going.
I’m gonna keep going until I can’t go any more. It’s one day at a time. You do what you have to do to get through today and you worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. And you don’t do foolish things today figuring that you’re not going to have tomorrow. I don’t overdo it.
You have to use some common sense, but it is what it is. I’m not going to be able to make it go away. You can just sit back and say “woe is me, poor me, look what I have to deal with” because everybody has something to deal with. It may not even be physical. I’m really no different than anyone else.
When people see how you overcome MS symptoms and continue to play, they don’t have many good excuses not to get into The Games.
People say they’ve never played, or maybe that they haven’t played in 30 years. Our philosophy with the softball league is that you don’t have to be good to play. You don’t have to be good at whatever it is. You just have to go out there and be active. And being involved in this is like being in a family, not just with the softball but with the all of the Senior Games, from local on up.
You could be the slowest person out there, or throw the shortest distance, or never make a basket. It doesn’t matter. Everybody’s out there cheering for you. The support system is out there. Do it.