By all accounts, Bonnie St. John has led a remarkable life. She has an economics degree from Harvard University. She has been a Rhodes Scholar. Later, she served on the White House Economic Council. Today she’s an author and motivational speaker. And skiing was the catalyst for it all.
The recent Winter Paralympics brought back memories for St. John, who earned three medals in the 1984 Winter Paralympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. She earned bronze medals in the slalom and giant slalom and a silver medal for overall performance. “I didn’t expect to win a medal,” she recalls, and so, when I did win two medals I was stunned. I was happy but stunned.”
The road St. John has traveled over the course of her 53 years has been difficult at times. Born in Detroit, she grew up in National City, California, south of San Diego. It was hardly a paradise. “National City is near the Mexican border,” she says, which is where the gangs are, and a lot of violence.”
When St. John was a little girl, her stepfather abused her. He eventually moved out and St. John and her siblings were raised by her mother, a high-school principal. When St. John was five, her right leg was amputated due to a condition called proximal femoral focal deficiency in which the bones in the leg, hip, and pelvis do not develop properly.
Although St. John lived in a community that was south of San Diego she was bussed to La Jolla, at the north end of the city, to go to school. When she was in high school, a friend invited her to go a skiing trip over the Christmas holiday break. St. John got on skis for the first time just before the trip as a warmup and, as she puts it “All I could do was fall.” But that week turned out to be a life-changing event. “By the end of the week I was turning left and right,” she says, and I could go on the intermediate slope. I was hooked by the end of the week.”
That St. John was a Paralympian four years later is a testament to her resolve. She was forced to raise her own funds for equipment and living and training expenses, which she did, in part by living on a glacier in Oregon for two summers whole she worked in a gift shop. “I had to be very entrepreneurial,” she says. “I got a job, I got an apartment, I hired a coach.”
In 1984 the Winter Paralympics were still a new entity. They had been held for the first time just eight years before. The ’84 Games were officially called the Third World Winter Games for the Disabled. More than 400 athletes from 21 nation competed in alpine and cross-country skiing and ice sledge ski racing.
Conditions, even by the standards of that era, were Spartan. “We didn’t have an Olympic Village,” St John recalls. “We stayed in little hotels. I literally shared a bed with one of my competitors. For breakfast, they wanted to give us a roll and coffee. We said, ‘We have to go skiing, we need food.”
Today’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes receive an abundance of complimentary clothing. Not so in Innsbruck in 1984. “I got one jacket and one race sweater,” St John says, “that was it. I had gloves I wore when I was competing I had gotten from a lost and found somewhere. I did have a sponsor for boots and skis but a lot of my clothing was donated from fundraising. (Today) it really is a different world.”
In fact, it was years after her medal-winning performance in Innsbruck that St. John became aware of the historical significance of her achievement; that she was the first African-American female to earn a medal of in a Winter Olympics or Winter Paralympics.
Four years later, African-American figure skater Debbie Thomas was celebrated when she won the silver medal in the ladies’ singles completion at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. But St. John’s accomplishment four years earlier was largely overlooked. “And I’m so proud of that achievement,” she says, “and I’m proud of being the first African American to win an Olympic or Paralympic winter medal because it challenges people’s expectations. And to say that we can all challenge our expectations, that’s really the fundamental theme of who I am and what I represent…. In writing, speaking, everything I do.”
A list of everything St. John has done since her Paralympics experience would be rather lengthy. When the 1984 Paralympics ended, she was still just 19 years old. She returned to college at Harvard University and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1986. With a Rhodes Scholarship in hand, she moved on to Oxford University and earned an M.Litt. degree in economics in 1990.
From there, she entered the corporate world as a salesperson for IBM. In 1992 she joined the White House National Economic Council under President Clinton, serving as a Director for Human Capital. She left two years later to launch a career as a writer and motivational speaker. Today, she heads the Blue Circle Leadership Institute, an organization she founded to assist corporations and entrepreneurs and promote leadership in the business sector. She has written two books, and was also part of the Presidential delegation that traveled to the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver.
Through it all, Bonnie St. John has maintained her positive outlook and her entrepreneurial spirit. “One thing I take away from being entrepreneurial is being willing to take a shot at something a put together the resources and organize it and I also think that one of the reasons I won is because I was able to do that.”
“Being able to communicate and write and speak was a big part of what make the difference. It has allowed me to be an entrepreneurial person and now I’m able to take that experience of being a Paralympic athlete and using it to make a difference for other people.”