Meet the first black woman to win medals in skiing at the Winter Paralympics Bonnie St. John: ‘People fall down, winners get up, and gold-medal winners just get up faster’
It’s undefeated moments like those experienced by author, motivational speaker, mother and Paralympian Bonnie St. John that often give you goosebumps due to her resilience.
St. John’s leg was amputated when she was 5 years old. She had a condition called pre-femoral focal disorder. Proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD) is a rare, nonhereditary problem that affects the pelvis and the proximal femur (high bone closest to the hip).
Despite her condition, in 1984 at the Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria, St. John became the first black woman ever to win Olympic or Paralympic medals in ski racing, taking home a silver and two bronze medals in downhill events.
“I never expected to win medals at all,” she wrote in a personal account. “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 [the U.S. only took three, one-legged women]. I was just happy to be there.”
She was deemed the second-fastest woman in the world on one leg in that year. In 2010, St. John once again represented the United States as a member of President Barack Obama’s official delegation to the Winter Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
Starbucks fans all over the globe may have been inspired by St. John. In 2006, she was quoted on a Starbucks cup during its “The Way I See It” campaign: “I was ahead in the slalom. But in the second run, everyone fell on a dangerous spot. I was beaten by a woman who got up faster than I did. I learned that people fall down, winners get up, and gold-medal winners just get up faster.”
St. John is a highly recommended motivational speaker. In 1986, she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University. She’s a Rhodes scholar and was appointed director for the National Economic Council at the White House during former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Before she evolved into a superwoman, she said she had to overcome not only surgeries pertaining to the amputation of her leg, but a traumatic experience that happened in her childhood. On Beyond the Ultimate, she recounted being sexually abused by her stepfather.
“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 wrote. “He used that time to abuse me sexually, from age 2 until 7. I later learned he abused my older sister as well. When my stepfather finally left, it was like a dark cloud was lifted from our lives. My mother became the lively, funny person we had seen so little of in recent years.”
Born in Detroit and raised in San Diego, St. John has inspired leaders with her story, business savvy and corporate skills for more than 20 years. She is the author of six books, including one she co-authored with her daughter Darcy — How Great Women Lead. The best-selling book has placed the duo on a journey that has allowed them to cross the paths of other extraordinary women including Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, fashion designers, CEOs, women’s rights activists and many more.
According to her website, St. John enjoys “giving back.” She makes appearances at schools, homeless shelters, community groups and other organizations in hundreds of locations while traveling for corporate clients. She spends the winter months coaching ski racers with disabilities for the Adaptive Sports Foundation in Windham, New York.