Cadets Were Skeptical at First, but Now Bonnie Bennett Has 'em Doing Handstands at West Point

UPDATED 06/03/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/03/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

The Marines are always searching for a few good men, but back in 1980 the Army was willing to consider one good woman to direct upper-class instruction in West Point's physical education department. It was the first time in the 178-year history of the academy that women were eligible for the job of overseeing the fitness training of the cadets. All that was required was that she have the strength of Hulk Hogan, the sparkling athleticism of Mary Lou Retton and that she hold a doctorate.

"I wondered where they would find this high-heeled sneaker type," recalls Dr. Bonnie Bennett, then the women's gymnastic coach at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. "It was like applying for the role of Superwoman." Nevertheless, at the urging of a friend, the 5'2½", 110-pound dynamo decided to apply for the job. After several interviews, which included demonstrating her gymnastic and physical stamina ("I never had a job interview where I had to stand on my hands and show them what I could do"), she won out over 29 applicants, nine of them women. Laughs Bennett, now 40: "And I hadn't even seen Private Benjamin."

Once she arrived at the academy, Bennett had no problem proving herself to some of the skeptical cadets, who are considered to be among the top 1 percent of this country's most physically fit in their age group. She helped revamp the curriculum and ushered in new courses in physical conditioning. Her biggest coup was introducing an aerobics dancing class that quickly became known as the toughest regimen of its kind in the nation. "The first day I walked in, two guys got up and started dancing cheek to cheek, real smart alecks," says Bennett. At the end, "they left the room drenched in sweat." Her most infamous routine, set to Top 10 rock music, includes 68 consecutive pushups and can raise the heart rate to 180-190 beats per minute (the normal resting rate is 70-90). Some cadets have even nicknamed the course "Aerobic Death," and Bennett nods in agreement: "It's designed to kill them."

"She can physically drive any man into the ground," says Deborah Lane, captain of the women's swim team. Yet Bennett's strength "makes her even more feminine," insists Maj. Bill Griffin, assistant director of sports medicine. "I think that's the way a real woman should be."

No one would have pegged young Bonnie as an athletic demon. Daughter of a Huntington, W. Va. chemist and housewife, she suffered from asthma as a child. Doctors advised her parents to go West, and in 1947 when Bonnie was 2, the family moved to Albuquerque. There she pursued athletics to strengthen her lungs. It wasn't long, reports Bonnie's mother, Betty Kilgore, before her daughter would "come out of her bedroom every morning turning flips into the breakfast nook." At the University of New Mexico, Bonnie took up gymnastics, and eventually ranked 38th in the country.

At 21, she stood still long enough to marry Thomas Bennett Jr., a professor of psychology, and moved with him to Sacramento, where she taught high school physical education. Their son, Dean, was born in 1971, and when the marriage broke up in 1972, Bonnie, by then working toward her doctorate in physical education, was left to raise the child alone. "I was cocktail-waitressing, typing manuscripts, cleaning my apartment building, anything," says Bonnie. Eventually she received her degree and in 1973 was hired at Western Ontario by Athletic Director Bob Barney, a former professor at the University of New Mexico. "Some women train to be coaches," Barney says. "Bonnie was born to be one."

After Bonnie moved to West Point, a male colleague, Dr. Robert Stauffer, gave her some advice. Don't date anybody at the academy, he warned; "It's a fishbowl." Stauffer, a divorced research psychologist, then parlayed neighborly gestures, like hanging her curtains and fixing her washer, into a romance. In 1981 they married. (The mini-Brady Bunch includes a son, Eric, 10, by his previous marriage.)

At the family's comfortable, two-story quarters on the grounds of West Point, Bennett juggles her own 1½ hour daily routine (it varies but might combine running or rowing, 10 miles on a stationary bike and weightlifting, emphasizing different muscle groups each day) with the responsibilities of running a household. The effort has paid off. "The attitudes of men toward women here are a lot better because of her," says one male cadet. "She's won our respect."

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