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
having everything they would want to do it perfectly. Being a
disabled athlete gave me more perspective on how things work
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