Bonnie St. John was abused as a child, went through numerous surgeries to have her leg amputated, divorced, and became a single mom. Despite the tragedies, she has been a strong woman. A Rhodes Scholar, former White House official and an inspirational speaker, she is also a one-legged Olympic ski champion. This is her story.
Born in Detroit in 1964 and raised by her mother in a predominantly African-American, Californian neighborhood, St. John had special permission to attend high school in a predominantly White area. “In California, they had integration rules, so if you were black and you were going to go to a more white school, they would give you permission to go outside your neighbourhood. We were seen to be helping integration,” she said.
But at the age of five, St. John had to have her right leg amputated below the knee due to a condition known as pre-formal focal disorder. And then she had to endure sexual abuse as a child. “My mother had married an older man, who was retired, so he was home alone with me frequently while my mother was at work,” she said in an article for the Beyond The Ultimate website.
“He used that time to abuse me sexually, from age two until seven. I later learnt he abused my older sister as well.”
In 1979, when St. John was 15, her friend Barbara Warmath gave her a present for her birthday — a handwritten coupon that said “One week of skiing over Christmas vacation”. St. John didn’t know how to ski even though it was everything she had dreamed of. Thus, she began skiing with an amputee club where she borrowed the outriggers [a combination ski pole/crutch used for balance] for her early trips.
“By working in a drugstore after school, I could afford to ski on the weekends. Soon, my passion blossomed to the point where I decided to become a racer,” she said.
Initially, she had no team and coaches, but she entered NASTAR races so that she could practice. NASTAR races were open to the public. At the time, she was studying economics at Harvard, but she took a break for a year from her studies and even lived on a glacier in the summer so she could continue to ski all year round. All in all, skiing provided solace from the trauma of her childhood. And then finally, after years of hard work and determination, she won a place on the 1984 U.S. Paralympic Ski Team.
Over 500 athletes from 22 countries gathered that year in Innsbruck, Austria, for the Paralympic Games. “As the third-ranked amputee woman in the U.S., I had only barely made the cut (they only took three, one-legged women). I was just happy to be there,” she said.
At the end of the Games, she picked up two bronze medals in the slalom and giant slalom and a silver overall. She, in fact, became the first African American to win a medal at a Winter Paralympics. “At the final medals ceremony, I was awarded the silver medal for overall performance as the second-fastest woman in the world on one leg! It was many years later that I would find out I was, in fact, the first African-American ever to win medals in any Winter Olympic or Paralympic Games,” she said.
Two years after the Games, St. John graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics and later received a Rhodes Scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1990. She got married during that period and went to work for IBM where she earned many sales awards. Thanks to her amazing career in sales, she entered the White House as Bill Clinton’s director for human capital issues. In 2010, she became a member of Barack Obama’s official delegation ahead of the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.
Today, after having faced her feelings about the childhood abuse, St. John is living her best life. She is usually seen at programs and schools giving talks and supporting athletes with disabilities. “Because I have had so many tragedies in my life I have the authority to say to people, ‘no matter how bad your suffering may seem, you truly can choose joy.’ Everyone has the God-given capacity to live joyfully—it doesn’t depend on your circumstances,” the author and inspirational speaker said. “But it does require that you make the choice to identify your joys in life and take action to embrace them.”