Bonnie St. John attends the The Women's Sports Foundation's 38th Annual Salute To Women in Sports Awards Gala on Oct. 18, 2017 in New York City.
Bonnie St. John's journey started with a high school friend inviting her on a ski trip. From there, a 15-year-old St. John made the first defining decision. She wanted to ski no matter what it took.
One of three children raised by a single mother and teacher in San Diego, there wasn’t much of a path to success in ski. So, with limited money, no mountains anywhere near her home and a birth defect causing a right leg amputation, she had to forge her own.
“It's interesting because I've been an entrepreneur most of my life and I had to be entrepreneurial even to be a ski racer,” she said. “So, what I did was I wrote letters.”
Those letters went to equipment manufacturers. When someone returned a pair of damaged boots, they’d donate a functional boot to a one-legged skier who could use it. She did the same with her ski. She had to take the bus to a ski area where there was no one certified to teach an amputee.
“Back then I fell a lot,” she said.
“I worked a job after school and with all the free stuff I was able to get, I could afford to take what I made after school Monday through Thursday and use it to go skiing on the weekends.”
St. John went from writing letters to companies and coming back home with scars everywhere from falling, to becoming the first African American woman to win a Paralympic or Olympic medal at a Winter Games in 1984. But there was no eureka moment for her. The journey was gradual rather than sudden.
“The first day out skiing. I didn't say, ‘Oh gosh, I think I would like to go to the Olympics.’ I don't think it works like that. I think it's a series of choices to do the hard thing that ended up getting you there,” she said.
“The idea to keep skiing after that was a choice, it was a hard choice, but I started skiing with other amputees, just recreationally. Then I met a number of people who raced and looked at them and thought maybe I can race and do the best I could at it.”
While competing, St. John said she had to spend as much time raising money as she did training, trying to gather interest and support for her ambitions. In advocating for herself, she became a proponent for the Paralympic movement as a whole.
“I was raising the bar in terms of showing what an amputee could do, racing and training with two legged skiers and breaking the mold for others to come along and create better programs and better opportunities,” she said.
“It's a series of decisions to do the hard thing and continually look at what's next. How can I raise the bar? How can I make more of an impact?” she said. “I do want to raise the bar. I do want to be a trailblazer. I want to show what's possible.”
St. John has brought that same mindset to the professional world after completing her degree at Harvard and earned her master’s at the University of Oxford.
St. John and her husband founded Blue Circle Leadership, which focuses on developing pathways for women and minority in corporate America.
She said 2020 has been especially busy as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum.
“The fact that we work with women and minorities became very important. We have just continued our work at full speed,” she said. “I think it's been an important goal for a long time, and it's just that there's more attention focused on it. So that gives us momentum to make a difference.”
St. John works every day to challenge the next generation to become trailblazers in their own fields, to show what’s possible by making the decision to do something challenging.
“I thought when I was younger, that things would get easier. I thought once I got a degree from Harvard, things would get easier. I thought once I worked in the White House, things would get easier. Once I went to Oxford, things would get easier, but they don't, you just get stronger,” she said.
“Once you embrace that lesson, that you're never going to get to a position where everything is easy, then you can choose how you want to live.”