Beyond Boundaries | Samantha Bondurant

“She wants to get better every time”

Samantha Bondurant saw an opportunity when her older brother Louis moved out of the family home in Virginia Beach.

“We turned his room into a home gym,” recalls the 23-year-old track star and Special Olympics Virginia’s Athlete of the Year.

Pretty soon there was a stationary bicycle, a weight bench, dumbbells, kettlebells – just what was needed for a young woman in search of constant improvement.

Whether it’s on the track, the soccer field, the basketball court or the powerlifting arena, Bondurant is a go-getter in search of getting better. The same is true beyond sports: Despite her intellectual disability, epilepsy and a stutter, she works diligently on her public speaking as a Global Messenger.

It all adds up to one personal quality: drive.

“Make no bones about it, Samantha is very competitive about her sports,” says Sherry York, Bondurant’s Global Messenger mentor and coordinator of SOVA’s Chesapeake Council. “But it’s much more than being an athlete. She loves getting in front of people and speaking and sharing her story – what Special Olympics means to her.”

What it means is to be part of a supportive network in which athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers watch each other’s backs.

“I call it my happy place,” Bondurant says. “They are like a second family to me. They treat me well. We look out for each other and support one another.”

For Bondurant, that includes seeking help for her stutter, which led to instances in the past of bullying at school and work. (Both her high school and a local restaurant where she works, fittingly, as a “runner” delivering take-out orders, took action.)

Getting personal

Bondurant didn’t come to Special Olympics as an athletic novice. She ran cross country all four years in high school and spent two years on the track and field team.

Before each cross country season, she says, she would fall down – a misstep that would come to symbolize the start of the season.

After graduating from her special education program with honors in 2019, Bondurant continued to use her high school track. It was there that she “ran” into Willie Justis during his own workout. Justis, it turned out, is a personal trainer.

“They struck it up,” Bondurant’s mother, Kelly, recalls. Pretty soon Justis had a new student. These days, they work on her running skills and fitness twice a week.

“Her work ethic is crazy,” Justis says. “She’s one of those competitors who wants to get it right, who wants to get better every time she steps on the track.”

The attention to detail – knees higher, legs cycling better, running straight up rather than leaning forward – has paid off for Bondurant’s Special Olympics track and field coach, Calvin Nance.

“She’s the only one I know of who has a personal trainer,” Nance marvels. “I have to tell her not to hurt herself. She’ll push herself if you don’t watch her.”

At the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Fla., in 2022, Bondurant was fast enough to be put in the top-level group of runners for the 400-meter event. While she did not medal, she emerged as one of the fastest female Special Olympics athletes in the nation.

Of course, every season isn’t track and field season, so Bondurant has expanded her athletic repertoire to include soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and powerlifting year-round.

“We have a color-coded calendar on the refrigerator,” her mother quips.

Special Olympics powerlifting coach Marcus Leggett says Bondurant can lift her weight. The practices and competitions, he says, help improve her leg muscles and stamina for running. But like Nance and Justis, he has to protect her from herself.

“The one thing I’ve got to constantly get on her about is that she pushes her limit,” Leggett says. “I have to pull her back at times.”

‘So much growth’

Despite a relatively short Special Olympics career, Bondurant has advanced in leaps and bounds, both as an athlete and an advocate for people with disabilities.

It’s evident in her speed. It’s evident in her strength. And it’s evident in her self-confidence.

When a new athlete enters the program, York says, “She is out there sticking her hand out, introducing herself, welcoming them into the community.”

“She’s a 100 percent team player,” Nance says. “She’s always cheering everybody on.”

While her top events involve a lap or two around the track, Bondurant has taken to distance running as well. She recently completed her first half marathon (13.1 miles) in Norfolk in a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes.

“It was easy,” she says, because she was put into a pace group averaging 10-minute miles. “I wasn’t even sweating.”

Now her goals include competing in shorter races in all 50 states and making it to the 2027 World Games in Santiago, Chile. Beyond that, she has her mind set on a career.

“My dream is to be a fitness trainer or a coach,” she says. “That’s always been my dream.”