Now a wife and mother of two young girls, the veteran coach at the Sault Ste. Marie Gymnastics Club hasn’t lost her passion for the sport and she’s a stabilizing force in a club that has consistently fared well throughout the province and at the national level in the United States.
“I just love it,” Bonnell said. “I don’t wake up thinking oooh, I have to go to work today. It’s just super rewarding and a lot of my gymnasts are like my own kids to me. When they come back and visit years later, it’s just so fulfilling to see them and the people they’ve become.”
For Bonnell, her introduction to the sport came after a failed attempt at dancing at a young age. She was always a strong kid growing up, but even she admits to being somewhat awkward and that clumsiness stood out during her early days in dance.
She eventually gravitated to gymnastics at age 10 and her hard work and resiliency would pay huge dividends. She said she used former gymnast and teammate Shanna Duggan as a source of motivation at that time as Duggan was smooth and talented, the very things Bonnell aspired to be.
“I wanted to be Shanna Duggan,” Bonnell said. “We were the same age and she was so good and she had been in it like forever.”
Bonnell eventually emerged as a young star herself and was offered a half-ride scholarship at the University of Connecticut before eventually opting to stay in Canada to attend Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
She began coaching the recreational program at Lakehead and then, upon returning home was urged by Mike Lemieux to give coaching a shot at the Sault club.
And now, 13 years later, she has given up teaching as a career to become the head coach and competitive manager at the Sault club. It was a bold decision, but at the end of the day she opted to go with her heart over her bank account.
“At that time I was only supply teaching and there wasn’t a lot of job security and as opportunities arose at the gym club, I started to travel more so it became a problem taking long-term leave and getting time off from teaching so I had to make a decision,” she said. “Do I keep applying for long-term positions with the board or put all my eggs in this one basket.”
She opted for the latter and has produced a number of national-level gymnasts. And she does it by teaching. She does it by demanding excellence and insisting that when you step into her club above the Rhodes Arena, you do so with your hard hat on and a willingness to pay the kind of price it takes to excel in a sport as physically demanding as gymnastics.
“I take gymnastics seriously, but I do want my kids to have fun,” Bonnell said. “I think I do a good job of balancing firm and fun, but when it’s crunch time to prepare for competition I expect you to come to practice and I expect you to work.
“I honestly believe gymnastics is the hardest sport in the world (physically) so when the kids come through the door, I want them to be focused, to work. Their parents pay big money for that so this isn’t a place to socialize.”
She credits most of her coaching success to those that mentored her, particularly Lemieux and Karen Apostle, both of whom worked tirelessly to develop athletes like Bonnell.
“When I did gymnastics, it was my life,” Bonnell says. “Now as a grown adult I see the sacrifices Mike and Karen made to make gymnastics such a unique sport. Mike and Karen gave me the gymnastics disease and I can’t let it go. I live, eat and breathe the sport and for me, it’s just so rewarding to be a part of the process in which kids grow emotionally and physically and it means a lot to me because I feel like their second mom.”
Of course, there has also been heartache. As a child, Bonnell was very close to teammate Sarah Positano, who was tragically murdered in her residence by James Trimble in 2005 while attending Kent State University in Ohio.
Bonnell was very close to Positano and to this day finds it difficult to talk about her former friend and teammate. Like Bonnell, Positano would have been 37 this year.
Like virtually every other sport, the gymnastics season was cancelled this season due to COVID-19, making for Bonnell’s most trying season as a coach. She said the city of Sault Ste. Marie has been very supportive, waiving her club’s lease payments while the Rhodes basically remains shut down.
But while the club itself isn’t competing, Bonnell is still busy, still trying to find ways to coach from afar and to make sure her gymnasts remain in shape for the upcoming season.