Bonnie Frankel is not your ordinary college coach, and she is proud of it. Just listen to runners she has coached at Loyola Marymount the last two seasons:
"I was ready to quit running because I felt burned out when I first met Bonnie," said assistant coach Chuck Hernandez, who ran for Frankel last season. "But she really encouraged me and I turned around and set a [personal record] by over two minutes."
Said freshman Lysandra Sapp: "She not only trains you but she tunes in on your mental aspect as well. She is able to key into your problems. She is just tremendous."
Said freshman Malinalli Martinez: "Bonnie is so hyper with so much energy. She's the reason why I decided to run here despite the fact Loyola does not have a track team."
Said sophomore Christina Nelson: "It's also great having her train with us. She's out there running like us. She doesn't yell at us because she knows about the pain we go through."
What makes Frankel so different is that she will turn 52 in December and can still outrun most of the runners she coaches.
"Besides being completely nuts, she is a remarkable athlete," said Pat Cady, coach of the Santa Monica Track Club who has coached Frankel the last two years. "She has such infectious enthusiasm."
From the moment Frankel wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to feed her three dogs and cat, she is a walking, talking, hugging infomercial on "positiveness" as she goes through her day.
To Frankel: If the sun isn't shining then flowers need rain. If your car breaks down a good walk will do you good. If you finish last at least you finished.
Frankel has suffered numerous injuries since she began running five years ago. Her determination to overcome obstacles is what makes her continue to compete.
"I'm telling you, the talent is really there," said Cady, who has coached several Olympic runners. "In only a few years of training, she can run with anyone in the world. I'm not going to be satisfied until she sets a world age-group record. She's just amazing."
This past summer, Frankel won the national Masters 400 meters for the second year in a row and finished second in the 1,500 meters. In 1995, she finished second in the 800 to go along with her 400 title and placed eighth in the 50-54 age group at the world championships in Buffalo.
Frankel, whose mother committed suicide after a long battle with depression, looks at herself as a late bloomer. She became seriously involved in sports after reconstructive breast surgery in 1987.
"In 1989, I started running for the great [former Olympic gold medalist] Tommie Smith at Santa Monica College," said Frankel, who is 5 feet 1 and weighs 96 pounds. "He would tell me that I was the George Foreman of running because I used to train with his sprinters and I was in my mid-40's at the time."
In 1991, Frankel transferred to Loyola and made history. She attempted to join the school's cross-country team, but found out that she was ineligible because of the NCAA "Five-Year Rule" that gives athletes five years to compete at the Division I level after enrolling in college.
The rule was intended to discourage men from returning to college sports and abusing the amateur athletic system. Frankel had attended Santa Monica College for one semester in 1967 and her eligibility had expired after 1972.
Instead of accepting her fate, Frankel decided to go to court and get the rule changed. In January 1993, the NCAA overwhelmingly voted in her favor and created the Bonnie Clause, which waives the five-year issue for women who were enrolled in college prior to 1982, when the NCAA began offering women national championships.
The waiver, however, was passed too late for Frankel to continue her cross-country career so she joined the women's swim team for the 1992-93 season at the age of 48.
"I guess I've always been goal-oriented," said Frankel, who received her degree in studio arts from Loyola Marymount in 1993. "And I've found myself fighting for principles more and more."
When Frankel started coaching at Loyola, she didn't have to battle too many candidates to replace Mike Sheehan, who had coached both the men's and women's teams for six seasons. The Lions were known for their low-key cross-country program, so Frankel's head coaching debut was not big news.
"We were like the 'Bad News Bears' in cross-country when I started," Frankel said. "We were a last-place team to everyone."
In less than two years, both the men's and women's teams have become a threat not only to Southern California schools but also to the top programs in the West Coast Conference.
"I think what makes me a good coach is that I listen to the kids," Frankel said. "I don't know every answer but they know that I am there for them. Because of my breast cancer, I was not able to have children. So, these are my kids. I've found my personal niche in life."
With the addition of tuition waivers to the cross-country program, Frankel has added several talented freshmen who have already made a difference.
At the University of San Diego Invitational on Sept. 7, Martinez finished fourth to help the women's team to a respectable third-place finish. In the men's race, freshman Rick Weis finished 17th as the Lions placed fifth.
"At first it took a while to get things going," said senior Louis Bronstein, a captain of the men's team. "This year is so much different. Everyone is motivated and dedicated to giving 100% every time they run. [Frankel] really believes and trusts her runners. She's definitely one of the finest coaches we have at school."
Aside from leading the Lions to their first conference championship, Frankel hopes to qualify for the Olympic track trials in the year 2000--and she is not talking about the Masters level.
"The kids keep me going," Frankel said. "They come here to run because of me. They teach me, and I teach them. I never thought that I would be doing this. I love touching people's lives. I think that is what life is all about."