Perseverance and resilience are qualities needed to achieve your goals and make a difference, said U.S. Paralympics skier, economist, inspirational author and leadership consultant Bonnie St. John, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Shenandoah University at its commencement on Saturday, May 18, 2019.
Hailed as “one of the five most inspiring women in America” by NBC Nightly News, she coaches others to challenge the status quo in their lives and in their work.
St. John — who had her right leg amputated at age 5 — knows a lot about persevering against the odds. It’s a trait that led her to win a silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
During commencement, she spoke about how it felt to nearly win the gold medal after her first run. “When I was in the Olympics, the Paralympics, I was the third-ranked one-legged woman on the U.S. team. When I finished the first run of the slalom, I was in first place. But you don’t win a medal until you do it twice. You have to go back and do another run.”
The second race, however, was held on a different course with a dangerous, icy spot on it. When the race began, several women fell and crashed. As St. John stood in the starting gate, she knew other women were falling. She also knew she could potentially take home the gold.
“I knew I was in first place. My stomach had butterflies, and I was so excited and terrified at the same time. I remember thinking, ‘If I just survive this race, I swear I’ll never do it again.’”
As the race official finished the three-second countdown, she burst out of the gate onto the course, skiing efficiently and swiftly down the steep slope.
“I broke the timing wand. I’m hitting the red and blue poles. I’m getting down to where I can see the finish line, and I think, ‘I made it. I’m going to win.’”
And that’s when it happened. St. John hit the ice, the same dangerous section that had dropped the other competitors, and she went down.
“I went from number one in the world, to ‘I crashed and I lost.’ I felt so devastated,” she said.
Yet at that moment, her training took over. She jumped up, grabbed her equipment, and skied over the finish line to complete the race.
“It’s what I had been trained to do,” she said.
And when the dust cleared, she was still in third place. She earned the bronze medal and stood on the winner’s podium with the U.S. flag behind her, her mother sobbing with pride.
But St. John said it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t gotten up and crossed that finish line. “I got up and finished, even when I didn’t think I would win, or when things didn’t go the way I wanted, or when everything went wrong and I thought my dreams had disappeared.”
She was later quoted on a Starbucks cup with this sentiment:
“People fall down. Winners get up. But sometimes the gold medal winner is just the person who gets up the fastest.”
“The woman who won the gold in that race didn’t win by not falling in the second run,” St. John explained. “She also fell on that dangerous icy spot. So how did she win? She was the quicker getter-upper. She got up without hesitation and got over the finish line.”
It was a lesson St. John never forgot. After completing degrees at Harvard and Oxford universities, she worked at IBM and the White House, and then started her own consulting business. Today, she is a bestselling author, a highly sought-after keynote speaker and leadership consultant, a television and radio personality, and an experienced conference facilitator. She also travels the globe speaking, leading seminars, and researching her various writing projects.
Yet each time she starts something new, she says she still falls down many times and has to get up and get back in the race.
Today is a critical time for change. Everybody says that, but really, with the acceleration of change in technology and globalization, we are at an unprecedented time of change. The chief information officer of the Ford car company said to me, ‘Think about the rate of change you’re experiencing today. That’s the slowest rate of change you’ll experience for the rest of your life.’ “
In a world that is moving faster than ever, St. John claims the individuals who get up, persevere and finish the course — even after a perceived failure — will win the race.
We need individuals today who will think deeply, plan carefully, act forcefully and courageously, but who will still fall down. The important thing to remember is to get up and get back in the race, to learn from what you do, and to keep going. Those who get back up quickly will win the gold. You’ll change the world for the rest of us.”
|As CEO of the Blue Circle Leadership Institute, Bonnie St. John leads several international virtual leadership programs and has written seven books, recently co-authoring her latest work, “MICRO-RESILIENCE: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, & Energy,” with her husband, former entertainment industry CEO, Allen Haines.