Paralympic silver medalist Bonnie St. John, appearing at the 11th annual Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum in Columbus Tuesday, talked of a defining athletic moment in her life, as well as hope that America can overcome racial barriers.
The author, businesswoman and motivational speaker recalled the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria, in which an initial slalom race put her into first place on the steep slopes there. But then came a second race on a much icier course to decide the overall time.
“I tried to hold on to my edge, and I couldn’t do it, and I fall down,” she said. “I was number one in the world and now I’m sitting in the snow. I was feeling horrible — to disappoint my sponsors, my teammates, my mother. I just wanted to crawl away and not have to face the music.”
Instead, St. John instinctively got back up to finish the race, coming away with a bronze medal. In overall standings for the Paralympics, she took home silver. St. John would later find out that she was the first African-America to win any Olympic or Paralympic competition medal.
The overarching lesson for the woman who had lost her right leg at age 5 due to a pre-femoral focal disorder was simple: Don’t hesitate to jump back up after suffering a fall in sports and in life.
“I got to stand up on the podium, the U.S. flag waving, my mother sobbing in the snow,” she said of the Paralympic moment. “But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten up and finished ... The woman who beat me in the race that got the gold also fell down. When everything went wrong, she took the gold. She didn’t win by being the faster skier. She won by being the quicker getter-upper. She couldn’t ski faster than me. But she didn’t have a split second of hesitation. She got up and got over the finish line.”
St. John would go on to graduate from Harvard University and receive a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford for her master’s degree in economics. She would be appointed director for Human Capital Issues on the White House National Economic Council by President Bill Clinton. Her professional life has included speaking on national TV and writing six books, with her latest titled, “How Great Women Lead.”
“It’s often the people who believe in us,” St. John said of those who have mentored and inspired her through life. “There’s something about people who believe in us, who give us that strength to do even more.”
One story she related was that of a man who became a diver after losing an uncle to a drowning incident and it taking weeks to retrieve his body. He chose the profession despite the fact that many times the rescues end in recoveries of the deceased. But even that, not having to wait, still gives families solace, he said.
“There are so many people who served their country here, people who work in the hospitals, the teachers,” she said of the 1,200 people gathered inside the Columbus Convention and Trade Center. “There are so many heroes around us who are not wearing medals.”
But like with most people, life hasn’t always been kind to St. John. The daughter of a black mother and white father — with her dad dying when she was 12 — she recounted setting up a meeting with her father’s brother several years ago to learn more about him and his family, from whom she and her mother were estranged.
The white uncle did meet her for coffee at a museum in New York City, but did not mince words about his disdain of her African-American heritage. He stressed he and his family wanted no connection to her.
“He made it very clear that I was still black, and that that mattered to him,” St. John said. “He actually said having black people in my family is like being gay and I don’t want to be outed — to my face.”
“This is not 50 years ago. I’m not covered in tattoos,” she said. “My father’s brother does not see me as family, and made it very clear that he never well. No matter what I accomplish, no matter where I graduated from, I will not be good enough because of the color of my skin.”
Thus, St. John called on those attending the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum to help lead the change that is needed in society.
“If the good people in this room don’t fight that (racial intolerance) tide that is rising, we can’t win,” she said. “People who look like me can’t win that fight. It’s only all of us that can keep America the America I believe in, the America of all of us, which is stronger with diversity.”