By Lily Toengi-Andrews
Fiery red hair, muscles upon muscles, charming Kiwi accent, loud laughs, big smiles and jumping around like a fire cracker – this is Bonnie Gillespie. A fighter and a lover of life. Bonnie has just won her second Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) cage fight and is looking upwards, her trajectory is to reach the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – Ronda Rousey territory for the uninitiated. Oh, and Bonnie has a hand difference that has been part of her journey, her strength and determination.
Bonnie grew up in Levin on the north island in New Zealand. She said, “I respected my elders and teachers but then the bullying started in primary school, when I was around ten.” People had always noticed her hand difference but then it became bullying. She asked her parents and brothers what she should do, what she should say, and received conflicting messages. Her dad said ‘knock ‘em down’, her brothers said ‘harden up or drop them’ and her Mum said ‘you can’t retaliate because you will get in trouble’. But she did retaliate as her first instinct was to follow in her brothers’ and father’s footsteps with so many males in the house. Bonnie said, “I was copping it every day and started fighting, getting sent to the Principal’s office, moved to other classes as I was distracted by the bullying in the classroom.”
There wasn’t any support groups like Aussie Hands or Limbs for Kids in her home town. Her mum took her to the local Kimberley Centre in Levin that was once the largest centre for the intellectually disabled in the Southern hemisphere. They made her a strap to put a knife and fork in, but it didn’t work for her, so she just adapted and used her hand as a scooper for peas and such. She said that back then there was around 10,000 people in Levin and they were all big families. Everyone knew everyone – there were only a few kids around with limb differences that she knew of. She became mates with Brent Tucker, also from Levin, who is a rep rugby player and rep cricket player. And it hasn’t stopped Bonnie doing anything she wanted. Bonnie was a track cyclist and swimmer in New Zealand and has participated in rugby, gymnastics, Judo dancing, Brazilian jujitsu, Zen Do Kai karate and Muay Thai boxing. Bonnie said, “My brother was Sportsman of the Year at college and I was sitting back in the audience thinking, I am going to be there next year. And I made it happen. You had to do 12 to 15 sports to be up on that stage.”
Bonnie has also achieved success in the Legends Football League (LFL) in 2013-2014. The male voice over on Bonnie’s LFL story says, ‘One who engages battle courageously, a warrior’ and ‘fireball of intensity, passion and heart.’ Monique Gaxiola, another former player with the LFL said, ‘She is a different breed and not from this planet! She’s a beast on the field and a little ball of muscle.’ Bonnie only wore one glove in the game and said, “I had extra training for catching. People were wondering why I only had the one glove and wanted to know about my hand, but I just focussed on catching with one hand and closing the gap with practice after practice after practice.” Her inspiration and motivation have been her brothers, “I’ve always been competing with my brothers to be at their standard. I decided I was going to fight life because this hand is nothing compared to what is out there.” People like pro skateboarder, Felipe Nunes, who lost both his legs when he was six and our own Nicholas Vujicic from Melbourne who was born with no legs or arms, tried everything possible, and is now a motivational speaker that travels the world.
I asked Bonnie if she was a warrior off the field as well and if this had anything to do with her hand – was it part of her persona to combat the questions, the scrutiny? She said, “Yeah, I think so, from day one. I’ve had to prove myself. There are always walls that come up and I have to smash them down, and then I walk away and go elsewhere. That’s why I always go to different sports and learn new stuff. But yeah, overall I am a strong woman and I know who I am. So it hasn’t broken me yet. I’m a warrior.” Bonnie has taken this attitude into the cage with her. She puts a lot of time into training. There is blood, sweat and tears. Her journey to the cage started way back in Levin when she was working at a gym with Dale and Loretta Winiana, “they taught me proper technique, posture and to be confident, not to be ashamed to stick your chest out. To this day I still have great form and I have never had an injury, so props to them. Yeeeahhhh.” Bonnie laughs loudly with this highly infectious laugh she has.
Bonnie said in the cage she unleashes the beast, “I just use all the negatives, all the bad things I have experienced, the negative things people say, because it has been a battle, and my inner warrior comes out on the field or in the cage. But I also use all the positives that come my way as this inspires me and inspires others to give them the courage to do exactly what they should be doing.” Bonnie gets lots of questions on Facebook, mainly from mums reaching out about their children ‘copping it’ but also about training in the gym and what does she suggest they (and children) can try. She said, “I love receiving questions like that.” I asked her what she wants other people to know about Aussie Hands kids and, in fact, any child with a difference. She says, “I just want them to know that they are okay, that there is nothing wrong with them. Just reach out. Don’t look at them in a strange way or judge them as they just want to be accepted like you do. They want to be motivated, pushed, told you can do it. Don’t shut the doors on these people because that is when they start losing confidence.”
My last question was, how do we inspire our Aussie Hands kids? Bonnie said that in this world we are living in now, saturated by media, we have these opportunities to, “see inspiring videos, join platforms that constantly upload these videos of inspiring kids and adults. Remind them never to give up. Stay motivated and surround yourself with, and be driven, by the right people – motivational, positive, uplifting people.” The Aussie Hands NSW group were lucky to meet Bonnie at their 2018 Christmas Picnic.
Thanks Bonnie for the wonderfully fun chat and inspiring words.
Go Bonnie in your third MMA cage fight!