In 1972, when Bonnie Lewkowicz was 15 and growing up in Detroit, she could pitch a baseball, skate, and play piano and guitar. Most of all, she loved to dance. She had studied ballet, tap, and jazz for ten years, preparing for a career on stage. Then, suddenly, all that was over.
She had been riding in an Amphicat all-terrain vehicle with three older boys, heading for a schoolyard to spin donuts. The ATV hit a bump on the street and flipped over. All four were thrown into the street. The boys were uninjured, but she landed awkwardly and the fall broke her neck. When she briefly regained consciousness, she couldn't move.
Four months of hospital misery followed. Lying flat on her back, she watched the Munich Olympic gymnastics on television, feeling that she might as well have been watching from the moon. When she came home she was paralyzed from the neck down, with limited movement in her arms. Her "strong-willed Jewish mother" fought to get her rehabilitation treatment, Lewkowicz said. Her father, an Auschwitz survivor, was devastated--to the point, she would later learn, that he wanted to kill both himself and his daughter. Yet it was her father's own suffering in the concentration camps that gave her strength then. He had been 13, not much younger than herself, when the Nazis took him and his family from their home in Boleslawiec, Poland.
"It was so much worse than what I had to deal with," Lewkowicz said, as she told her story in her greenery-filled kitchen in Berkeley. "Knowing that was a driving force for my stubbornness and desire for independence."
At first, though, she grimly resisted the changes in her life. Sharing few recreational interests with her older brother and younger sister, feeling stifled at having to stay indoors for days on end when it snowed, she was depressed. She hated going back to her ninth-grade class, dismissed wheelchair sports as not for her, and when her first motorized chair arrived, she cried. To her, it merely symbolized her helplessness.
That state of mind lasted about three years. By the time she graduated from high school, she had changed. "What turned things around for me was focusing on what I could do, rather than what I couldn't do," she remembers.
On her own, she set off for Johnston College in Redlands, east of Los Angeles, to study nutrition, then transferred to Santa Rosa Junior College because the smog was unbearable and because she wanted a school with services for people with disabilities. The stimulating college atmosphere reawakened her sporting instincts, and before long she was swimming a half mile three times a week and racing in 800-yard wheelchair competitions. By 1979, she had decided to pursue a career as a recreation therapist. In 1985, after more college classes at California State University in Sonoma and Chico, she received her bachelor's degree.