Pulse March / April 2016 - Page 28

CONVERSATIONS WITH BONNIE ST. JOHN Leadership consultant and best-selling author of How Great Women Lead, BONNIE ST. JOHN’S life is a story of triumph despite adversity. At age five, her legs were amputated due to deformity, but rather than being held back by her disability, she rose on top of life’s challenges to eventually become the first-ever African-American to win Paralympic medals in ski racing, taking home a silver and two bronze medals in downhill events at the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. “I grew up in San Diego where I had never seen snow before. My family had no money. My mom was a school teacher and a single parent,” she recalls of her early childhood. It wasn’t until a family friend invited her to go skiing that she discovered the world of skiing. Since then, and despite the numerous times she crashed and tumbled on ice, she fell in love with the sport and, ultimately, the idea of not giving up. PULSE: How did you discover the world of skiing? St. John: One Christmas vacation, a family friend reached out and invited me to go skiing with her family, an example of openness and willingness to throw away stereotypes. I had seen Teddy Kennedy ski on one leg and my mother found a brochure with an amputee skier on it, so I knew amputees could ski. But it was very hard to find equipment. I found an old pair of ski pants at the Salvation Army and wore knitted mittens. The first time I went on ice, it was awful. I kept falling and knocking other people over. It took me three days to learn how to stop. I would ski and crash, ski and crash. By the end of the week, I could turn right and left and I could stop. Because I didn’t give up, I could go fast after just a few days. It was a rush because I could go fast—I was hooked! P: How did being an athlete help prepare you to become a better leader? SJ: Disabled sport is a great metaphor for today’s business world. In traditional sports, people are given the best finance, training and equipment. They are groomed and selected to get to the next level. There is much more of a pathway for athletes. In disabled sports, I had to find my own equipment, find my own coaches and put the program together using my own initiative. In today’s business world, things are changing so fast. Competition is intense, and people have to try to compete without necessarily 26 PULSE ■ March/April 2016 having everything they would want to do it perfectly. Being a disabled athlete gave me more perspective on how things work now. P: The book How Great Women Lead was a bonding adventure between you and your daughter, Darcy. What inspired you to bring her along with this journey