The sports world is liberally represented on the lecture circuit. Competition in sports creates clear winners and losers. And the world loves winners. But sometimes, the competition in sports is intertwined with a greater competition in life. When that happens, you get lessons that are far deeper than those learned from winning or losing a game or contest. That is what we found in amputee, silver medal-winning Olympic skier, and Rhodes Scholar Bonnie St. John. Here’s what she’s lived and learned.
My journey from a working-class San Diego neighborhood to my current career has been an improbable one, but I hope it holds lessons for everyone.
I was born with a birth defect in my right leg called pre-femoral focal disorder (PFFD), in which the growth center of the femur is missing. Doctors don’t know why it happens; it just seems to occur randomly.
When I five, I had surgery at the Shriner’s Hospital in Los Angeles to amputate my leg above the knee, and I was fitted with a prosthetic.
Several years later, I saw young Teddy Kennedy, Jr. on T.V. He too had lost a leg to cancer in a skiing accident. Not long after that, Mom brought home a brochure from a skiing program for amputees. I remember looking at the pictures and thinking, “If I can do this, I can do anything.”
The Gift of a Lifetime
Eventually, I got an amazing gift from a high-school friend named Barbara Wormath. She gave me a homemade coupon that she’d drawn. It read: “Good for one week of skiing with the Wormath Family over Christmas vacation.”
I went on the vacation and the first day all I did was fall. And this was on the bunny hill. Finally, by day three, I’d learned how to turn.
The Wormaths showed me great kindness on that trip, but they didn’t make a big deal out of it. There was no pity. I was a friend who was on a ski trip with them. That was a powerful example that continues to guide and inspire me.
My Paralympic Journey
I’m looking down at the slalom run, trying to stay focused. I am a twenty-year-old, one-legged African-American woman, representing the United States at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. My mother, who has never seen me race, is watching from the stands.
I move into the starting gate, I break the timing wand, and I’m off. I fly down the slope, hitting the red and blue poles, and sail across the finish line. It felt like a perfect run.
They post my time: I’m number one. It’s a complete upset. I was third-ranked in my class and barely made the team. No one thought I was going to beat my teammates, let alone the best disabled skiers in the world. But I had trained all year long against two-legged skiers.
Get Up and Finish
But there’s no time to celebrate. It takes two runs to win the medal. I go back up to the top as my brother and mother cheer me on in the stands. I’m on the mountain, waiting for my second run, which is on a different course.
The new course is icy, and several skiers who’ve gone before me have fallen. One racer is taken away in an ambulance. So I’m thinking, “I don’t have to do anything crazy here, I just have to stay standing, and I can win the gold medal.”
I start my run, I’m going down, I get to where I can see the finish line, and I’m thinking, “I’ve made it. I’m going to win.” That’s when I hit the ice.
I try to hold onto my edge but I can’t, and I fall. The whole world is watching, and I screwed up. My first instinct is to crawl away and not have to face my mother, my teammates, and my sponsors. But my goal is to get across that finish line.
I get up and ski down. When the times are posted, I’m still number three. I’m awarded the bronze.
I get another bronze in the giant slalom, which has wider turns and then come in seventh in the downhill. At the end of the day, I win the silver medal for overall performance in the three races.
I’m named the second fastest disabled woman in the world, and I’m the first African-American to win a Paralympics medal in skiing. I find myself standing on the winners’ podium, the United States flag waving, my mother sobbing in the snow, silver medal around my neck. It was an incredibly proud moment.
None of that would have happened if I hadn’t gotten up and finished the race. That lesson has become the touchstone of my life, the basis of my career as a writer and public speaker.
In fact, my words ended up on a Starbucks cup: “People fall down. Winners get up. Gold medal winners just get up faster.” Because that’s what actually happened at the Paralympics: The woman who beat me also fell on the second slalom run, but she got up faster than I did. She’s a hero of mine because she taught me that life-changing lesson.