By Gabriella Lucci
The Black Student Union sponsored an event on Feb. 19 at 12:30 p.m. in the Brower Student Center Room 100 to host Bonnie St. John, a three-time Paralympic skiing medalist, who spoke to a room full of faculty, students and the local community about the importance of black history.
Apart from being a Paralympic medalist, St. John is also a leadership speaker, a keynote speaker, a best-selling author, a figure for national and international news and was the appointed director for human capital issues on the White House National Economic Council by former President Bill Clinton.
Her presentation, titled, “The Black History I Wish People Knew,” discussed her experience of becoming a paralympic athlete, as well as other inspiring stories of paralympic African-American athletes and coaches.
At age 5, St. John’s right leg was amputated due to a growth stunt that caused her leg to be shorter than her left one.
She explained the many battles she had to face in her life before, during and after her journey to the Olympics, which included growing up poor in San Diego and dealing with racism throughout her life.
As a child in San Diego, skiing never seemed plausible to St. John. It was not until her friend Barbara Warmouth invited her to go skiing that she fell in love with the sport that would change her life.
“When I was drafted for the U.S. team, I was the third-ranked one-legged skier, which is good, because they were only accepting three one-legged women,” St. John said.
When she competed at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria, St. John achieved the best time in the first round of the slalom races, a race in which athletes ski between poles that are spaced closely together on a slope.
The second round was a different story. An ice patch at the end of the slope awaited her. Every other racer had fallen on the course’s conclusion. Petrified, St. John took her turn, only to meet the same fate as her former competitors.
“I wanted to disappear instead of face my family and teammates,” St. John said.
As much as she did not want to keep going, she got up and continued racing. St. John placed third with a bronze medal because she got up faster than everyone else who fell.
“It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t get up and keep going,” St. John said.
St. John’s message throughout the presentation was about how she felt black history should be more incorporated with American history.
“Black history isn’t about black people or for black people, it is for America,” she said.
As a child, St. John explained that she did not understand black history. It was not until later that she comprehended its importance. She understood it as something that people in society realize together.
“If you don’t have diversity in, you won’t have diversity out … diversity is so important to strengthen all of us,” St. John said. “This is not black doing for black, but for America.”
St. John was the first African-American individual to win medals in the Winter Paralympic competition, while Vonetta Flowers was the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games.
According to St. John, Flowers was recruited to be a bobsled pusher, but two months before the competition, she was told she was not needed anymore another athlete would replace her.
Flowers did not stop her training and had two more teams lined up to recruit her. This resulted in her receiving a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“If she had stopped training, she wouldn’t have won the gold,” St. John said. “It’s about being a true champion.”
She said that athletes, artists and entertainers do not accomplish their career successes all on their own –– they had a team of people who helped them get to where they are, even though they are not recognized most of the time.
“To be a ‘helpable’ person is an art to cultivate,” St. John said. “The heroes and cheerios aren’t the only ones who did anything, they had help … everyone came together.”
St. John described herself as a realist. Her mother is black and her father is white, making her interracial and subject to racism, she explained.
St. John’s father died when she was 12. She and her siblings then met relatives from her father’s side of the family for first time, only to be unwelcomed and unknown to them because of their race.
Because of this experience, St. John formed a movement called #CrossRaceAllies, an organization for black people and white people to be allies for each other.
“It made me realize that being an ally is everyone’s duty,” said Rajbir Toor, a sophomore psychology major. “We all have a civic responsibility to be advocates for one another.”
St. John recommended that everyone be an ally for each other –– not just in terms of race, but other genders and the disabled should ally as well to become informed about other people’s perspectives and experiences.
“Black history is black American history,” St. John said. “We do it together.”