When Bonnie St. John kicks off a keynote speech, seminar or workshop, she often says by way of introduction, “Hello everybody—– I’m the one-legged, black skier from San Diego, with no money and no snow.”
It’s a good icebreaker, of course, but it also offers insight into St. John’s journey from a family of modest means who knew nothing about winter sports, to becoming the first African-American woman to win a Paralympic or Olympic medal at a Winter Games, to achieving academic and business success.
Today, the best-selling author and founder of Blue Circle Leadership, a consulting firm specializing in transformational leadership programs for Fortune 500 companies including Microsoft, Pepsi, Target and many others, credits her career as a Para alpine skier with instilling the resiliency and positivity that made her other endeavors possible.
“You think it’s hard to be a one-legged skier? Try being a skier with no money,” said St. John, one of many being celebrated as part of Women of Team USA Week. “I waited tables, worked in a gift shop in Oregon … I hired my own coaches, booked places to stay, kept it all moving and together. It was great training to be an entrepreneur for almost 30 years. I got really good at marketing myself, putting together a package for excellence.”
Born in Detroit, St. John grew up in National City, California, which she describes as “south of San Diego — the wrong side of the tracks.” Her parents separated before she was born, and Bonnie and her siblings were raised by her mom, an English teacher. A rare birth defect — she was born without a femur — caused her right leg to be amputated when she was 5 years old.
Even more challenging, her mother remarried, and St. John’s stepfather sexually abused Bonnie from the age of 2 to 7.
“I remember the months I spent in the hospital so clearly,” St. John said. “But most of the first, second, third grades, I can’t remember. I blocked it out.”
When she was 15 and a student at Mission Bay High School, a well-off friend invited her to join her family on a Christmas ski holiday. As St. John remembers it, she found a pair of used ski pants at a Salvation Army, borrowed some equipment and made the trip, considering it a great adventure.
As it turned out, St. John loved the speed, freedom and glide of the slopes, so she joined an amputee skiing club. After graduation she traveled, becoming — in her words — a “ski bum,” entering NASTAR races and delaying her studies at Harvard University in hopes of qualifying for the 1984 Paralympic Games. She did, as the third-ranked U.S. skier.
“I barely made it, I kind of squeaked in,” St. John said. “They only took three one-legged skiers.”
The competition in Innsbruck, Austria, changed her life. Skiing with few expectations, she led after the first slalom run.
“It was an upset, no one expected it,” St. John recalled. “But winning takes two runs, and they reset the course after the first run. So, we went back up, we sat, and we waited our turns to ski the new course.”
Reports radioed back from the bottom of the mountain: A lot of women were crashing.
“We were getting these calls saying, ‘Dang, it’s icy,’” she said. “I thought to myself, no heroics — all I need is a solid run and I’ll have a gold medal, which I really wanted.”
“I was so disappointed, I wanted to crawl away,” she said. “I was embarrassed to face my family, my sponsors … My training, my reflex was always to finish, so I got up and crossed the (finish) line. And when the dust cleared I won the bronze, so I got to stand on the podium.”
St. John won another bronze medal in giant slalom, as well as a silver for overall performance. But the loss of gold taught her a simple, profound lesson, one she continues to pass on in her books, speeches and consulting work.
“The winner wasn’t faster than me; I had the better times,” St. John said. “On that second run, she fell, too. The only way she could have beaten me was she got up faster.”
The lesson served St. John well. She completed her Harvard degree in 1986, and went on to the University of Oxford, where she earned a Master of Letters in Economics. After a stint in sales at IBM — as well as service on President Clinton’s White House National Economic Council — she struck out on her own, as an author and inspirational speaker.
In 2011, St. John and her husband Allen P. Haines, an entertainment production and marketing executive, founded Blue Circle Leadership. A primary area of focus: help organizations build the diverse leadership they need, to better respond to the market.
“For about six years now, we have worked with Fortune 50 companies on developing the trajectory of women leaders,” she said. “Help them to truly engineer growth further down the pipeline and change the trajectories of careers,” she said.
One of the challenges, St. John said, is that many women tend to communicate differently than their male counterparts, particularly when it comes to self-promotion.
“We tend to put our head down and do the job,” she said. “We’re not used to bragging about achievements, or asking for things …. And when we do, there’s often pushback.”
Another focus: giving people the tools they need to develop what St. John has coined “micro-resiliency,” the ability to snap back from daily disappointments and challenges to maintain focus and energy through periods of change and uncertainty.
“There are evidence-based hacks helping your brain, to lead to more positivity,” she said. “Ways to help you be less exhausted and drained, even things to do with metabolism. So often, we see smart people pushed to their limits.”
One technique St. John recommends is a 30-second self-pep talk, similar to what successful athletes use to motivate themselves during changeovers or breaks. She also urges people to create a “first aid kit for your attitude” including photos of family and loved ones; mementos of big events; encouraging notes and other mood lifters to help regain perspective and get back on track.
“These are small adjustments you can make, that help every day with the slings and arrows of daily tough things,” she said. “There’s so much disruption and technology change these days, resilience is really the meta skill of the future.”
Some of St. John’s work is pro bono, including speaking in homeless shelters and schools.
“I craft the message to the group I’m speaking to, to help them use my experiences with whatever problems they may have,” she said. “Recently, at a homeless shelter, I had a big guy come up and say, ‘You’re just like me,’ and that was the best compliment, for him to see what we have in common.”
St. John still has close ties to the Paralympic movement. Recently, she and five-time Olympic swimming medalist John Naber provided voiceover narration for a series of exhibits at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, scheduled for opening in Colorado Springs, Colorado, this year. She also attends functions and reunions as often as her schedule allows.
“I’m proud of being one of the pioneers of the Paralympic movement,” she said. “Think about it — 1984 was only the third Winter Games. It will always be a part of me.”