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She could make it in a tight-knit, high-standards family—all three daughters valedictorians—with parents who grounded her for a month for the one C in her life, eighth grade, Algebra I. She could make it in a low-expectations town dying ever since the railroad pulled out in '59, leaving, in poverty's wake, a rash of teen pregnancies and one-parent homes—a town where the youth are drifting away and the median age is 15 years older than in the rest of the state—and a teenage girl walking the wobbly tightrope between sky's-the-limit and know-yer-place.
She coasts over the bar at each height through 5'2", so much flex in her Fosbury Flop that she nearly kicks her head every time. She doesn't talk between jumps. She lies on the grass with her head on her backpack, arms crossed over her stomach and a towel over her eyes. Her school has no high jump pads; she's doing this on guts and will and focus and virtually no practice.
She clears 5'4" on her second try. Only three girls remain. The sun's setting. She's been on the track since 10:30 this morning, running and leaping and throwing in this heat. But this is her life. At school she spends an hour lifting weights with the football team, then bolts to tennis practice—she twice makes regionals—then starts her hour-and-a-half track workout. On Saturdays and during the summer she works all day on a neighbor's ranch, saddling up to herd the cattle, clearing grazing land with an ax and a chain saw, digging water lines, mending fences, feeding livestock in 100° heat till 5:30 ... then rings the superintendent's doorbell next to her school and asks for the key to the weight room. Her teachers, coaches and administrators don't call her the hardest-working kid they've ever laid eyes on. They call her the hardest-working person.
She clears 5'5". "Yeah! That's my girl!" hollers her dad, Jack, a tall, mannerly ranch foreman who's capturing every moment on videotape. "Well done, darlin'!" Now it's down to just Bonnie and tall, lithe Jamie Hope of Cayuga High.
Neither girl makes 5'6". Bonnie, with fewer misses overall, wins the gold and 10 more points. Fool's gold, she mutters to herself, another medal going from her neck to her backpack in record time, to be smuggled into a cardboard box in her closet. Shouldn't even count as a win, she mutters, no idea that her 24 points are more than any other team's at the end of Day One.
"What were you thinking about when you were lying down between jumps?" asks her mother, Madelynn.
"You wouldn't want to know," says Bonnie.
I feel imprisoned by what I am capable of
SHE WAS supposed to be a boy. That's what the obstetrician who studied the sonogram assured her father he was getting. That's what Dad craved after two daughters, eight years of marriage and God knew how many offhand reminders from his own family that he was the last male in the Richardson line. Bonnie knew. "She used to say that she wished she was a boy," says her mother. "Then she decided, well, she'd just be better than any boy he'd ever have." How many males would Jack have had to sire to have finalists in five events at a state championship meet?
Bonnie coils into the starting blocks for the 100-meter dash at 1:34 p.m. the next day. She hates how she runs, arms and legs all wide and wild. She was pigeon-toed and gangly as a tyke, stumbling and plopping on the ground in tears whenever her two big sisters ditched her on the ranch they lived on. She didn't find much sympathy down there in the dust, not in that clan. Dad was foreman of three ranches, overseeing 32,000 acres, and on the side he taught the 4-H club his crackerjack skills with a shotgun. Lee discovered sarcasm before she found puberty, deadly from any range. Mom homeschooled her three daughters during their early years, having them run laps around the house for phys ed. "We can say our phonics charts in our nightmares," says Lee.