Mindfulness: Playing Big


By Judith Toy


I met WNC’s Bonnie Gadusek, former famous tennis pro once ranked #8 in the world, in a meditation hall. Gadusek says she likes to “play big.” Now that I think about it, I’m sure I watched her in a match on TV in the US Opens, at the top of her form, in the eighties. How has mindfulness come to play in her life? I wanted to know. Brought up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh on a recreational farm, she started out as a gymnastics wonder child, training for the US Olympics, until tragedy struck her at age 12, in February, 1976. Bonnie had just spent a long day at school and a vigorous workout in the gym. It was evening. She had not eaten anything in a long time, and she was tired, but putting in some extra work on her parallel bar routine. Just then, everything changed. In a moment, the young athlete’s dreams were shattered.


“I recall the moment,” she said. “I simply did not have enough momentum to grasp the high bar. I felt it slide out from under my fingers, and then the sensation of falling.” In gymnastics, you learn to minimize the damage when you fall. In that split second, she tried to think how to break the fall. There was nothing she could do. As her coach watched in horror, she hit the six-inch crash mat with her head bent completely underneath her body. Her second and third vertebra were subluxated from the force of the impact. It was only the gymnast’s well developed neck muscles – plus about one-half inch of wiggle room – that prevented paralysis or death.


She lay in traction for two weeks, flat on her back with a ten-pound weight stretching her neck. Sitting up for the first time was a huge challenge. “They raised my bed up gradually. I felt enormous bodily weakness, then fear and shock. I had been so active and strong. Now for me simply to sit up was a huge physical and emotional strain. By the time I finally made it to vertical, I was dizzy and weak, bodily feelings I had never experienced.” Later, to learn again to walk and stand, brought Bonnie more physical and emotional trauma, not to mention being torn away from friends and teammates.


The doctors attached a metal brace that immobilized Bonnie’s torso, but not her arms. “My arms were free. In the back of my mind, a door had closed, but I was asking what can I do now? I had so much inside of me, it was impossible not to do.” When her sister picked up a five-dollar tennis racket from K-Mart as a gift, Bonnie was given something to do. Body brace, or no body brace, she charged ahead. Tennis became her new passion. And she was good at it.


The family moved to Florida to be closer to Bonnie’s new tennis coach. Only seven years from the time she first wielded a racket, she was ranked the world’s 18th woman player, and in 1982, made it to the quarter finals of the US Open, before losing to tournament winner Chris Evert Lloyd. Winner of the first annual Omega Award as the player who has triumphed over the greatest obstacles, Gadusek continued to take trophies. In 1982, she was named Tennis Magazine’s Rookie of the Year, and in 1984-85 won more singles titles than all players except Navratilova and Evert.


“When you’re across the net from Chris Evert, you become like a machine with a must-win mentality.” But after ten intense years, most of those as a pro,” she said, “My spirit was quickly fading. I yearned for something that was missing at the level of my soul. I had all this success and fame, but I felt an emptiness and discontent.” Gadusek laid her racket down at the top of her game. “I wanted to know who I am. I wanted to understand the empty feeling inside. Discovering mindfulness and meditation satisfied my longing.”


Since stopping tennis, Gadusek has pursued self-discovery and personal growth the way she walloped a ball. Typically for athletes, true inner discovery takes a back seat. Then came her subsequent marriage and divorce. Undefeated still, she spun into a focused spiritual practice, through Buddhist teacher Fred Eppsteiner in Naples, where she was living at the time, and more importantly, with her late mindfulness teacher and friend Jan Robey. Robey convened an eclectic gathering of seekers in Bonita Springs, Florida. Because the teacher was completely disabled from polio and needed constant care, Gadusek moved in with her part-time, to become her student and caregiver. “When you live with someone who exists in mindfulness, you hear it and listen to it constantly. I asked her to teach me what she could in our time together. I continue to learn as much in her passing as I did in our time together.”
What helps me now is to believe in unlimited possibilities from the core of my being. To be open to knowing you can dream, that there is always something else that can be. With mindfulness training, this believing flowers in both sides of the brain—analysis and creativity.


“I have what I call a source in my core. It is an energy I feel deep inside that may at first be subtle. I feel it when I’m calm and not thinking. As I breathe into it, the energy expands. From this sensation comes strength and wisdom. I have a deep passion for playing big, once as an elite athlete, and now living in the ever-expanding state of mindfulness practice.”


Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the world’s best known mindfulness teachers, confirms what Gadusek knows: Mindfulness is a kind of energy that is in us in the form of a seed. If we know how to practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, then we should be able to touch the seed of mindfulness in us and transform it into a zone of energy.


Judith will be leading a free two-hour workshop on forgiveness September 8, 3-5:00, at Grateful Steps Book Shop in Asheville, with book signing to follow.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker