Running to Recovery

By Brian Ackermann

Every so often, a special person comes along whose kindness and spirit touch everyone’s lives. For those involved with the men’s cross country team, Bonita Schmidt — “Bunny,” as her runners call her — is that person.

Schmidt stands out as a coach in part because of the unmatched success of her teams. She has inspired generations of runners through her timeless battle with cancer, and the positive attitude she has maintained through everything she has dealt with.

Schmidt has battled cancer a total of three times. She was initially diagnosed with breast cancer over 20 years ago. After it returned for the second time she underwent a double mastectomy. After having knee surgery last year, doctors determined that her cancer had returned for the fourth time in the form of stage four bone cancer. However, her perseverance and determination keep her from getting down and she continues to coach the high school’s men’s cross country team.

Before the season started, she received radiation and chemotherapy treatments. However, currently her cancer levels are stable and she only receives shots periodically to stabilize her bones. Although this could change at any moment, she is happy to be in good health.

“She’s a true survivor, a warrior,” Athletic Director Vince Sortino said, “She has one of the most positive attitudes out of any of our coaches.”

“She’s handled it better than any anyone expected,” women’s cross country Coach Rich Wright said. “She doesn’t use it as a handicap.”      

“When she got diagnosed with bone cancer, you could tell she was weaker,” senior cross country runner Ryan Papariello said. “Now she’s stronger.”        

Schmidt began her cross country career coaching at the middle school and later advanced to become the head coach for the high school men’s cross country team. She began volunteering at the high school when her son began running for the cross country team, but she was worried about how her son might feel about her coaching.

“I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries,” Schmidt said. Although she felt she was intruding, she fell in love with the program. “I ended up falling in love with a whole bunch of kids.”

In the duration of her six years as head coach, the team has advanced to the state finals every year except this year. Her team placed fourth in 2010, the highest any Baldwin cross country team has placed in over 20 years.

Schmidt takes no credit for the success of the program. She believes the kids are extremely motivated and hard-working, and that is the main reason for the team’s success.

“We can sit here and take credit, but it’s not us, it’s them,” Schmidt said, “There are no cheerleaders there. There are no people buying tickets to watch them.”

Through her coaching, Schmidt has developed a large respect for her runners, both boys and girls.

“I was a graduate of Baldwin,” Schmidt said. “When I was there they didn’t have formalized sports teams for girls.”

Sortino praised the cross country team.

“It’s a very successful program,” Sortino said, “One of our most successful programs at the high school.”

Although Wright works as head of the women’s team and Schmidt works as head of the men’s team, they share duties and collaborate as partners.

Her nickname derived from her maiden name, Easter. She picked it up from her co-workers at St. Clair Hospital when she worked as a nurse.

“We do everything as a team,” Wright said.

“I’m Coach Bunny,” Schmidt said, “I’m Bonita at home and Bunny at work.”

 “Everybody thought it was funny to call me Bunny,” Schmidt said.

She worked as a nurse at St. Clair Hospital for 40 years to support herself and her family, but she can no longer work due to her condition.

“I worked the steady night term for years” Schmidt said, so she had enough time during the day to continue coaching.

“She’s the backbone of the cross country team,” athletic department secretary Cindy Leaf said. “Her involvement with the team keeps her going.”

Her family and her runners are what help her to stay positive. They look at her has a role model and strive to make her proud.

“She shows us that after all she’s been through, what we do is easy,” senior runner Parker Balla said.

“She always has a smile on her face,” Leaf said, “The kids can always count on her.”

To combat rising medical costs, a 5K run and one-mile walk were held in the fall of 2010 at the Schenley Park Oval. A total of 155 people attended the event. Wright hopes to continue this tradition for many years to come.

On top of coaching a championship team, Schmidt has raised two boys as a single mother and has inspired generations of runners to take advantage of their health and work as hard as they can.

“She’s a wonderful, wonderful woman,” Wright said

Although she is fighting a destructive disease, Schmidt does not express fear and appreciates everything her life has given her.

“When you think you’re scared, guess what? You’re not,” she said.