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Handicapped Ski Champ and Scholar Bonnie Saint John Will Travel to Oxford on Her Own Rhodes

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Bonnie Saint John has fond memories of the four years from 1980 to 1984, when she competed in the national championships for handicapped skiers. “Seeing 300 handicapped people together at one time was extraordinary,” says Saint John, who, as a result of a birth defect, has only one leg. “People would just toss their artificial leg to one side as they got on the chair lift. There would be this huge pile of crutches and legs, as if people had suddenly been healed.” The sense of newfound camaraderie, she adds, spilled over into displays of pleasantly warped humor. “I remember a couple of us felt so free we started telling these terrible jokes. Like someone would walk by and stare at us and one of us would say in a low voice, ‘Gee, she’s got two legs…I wonder if she was born that way?’ ”

Saint John, 21, was born with a right leg that wouldn’t grow. For medical reasons, it was amputated just below the knee when she was 5. She says she has never regarded her handicap as a great limitation, and her accomplishments support that belief. In 1984 she finished second overall at the world championship for handicapped skiers in Innsbruck. More recently, and in a completely different field of competition, she was named one of the 32 U.S. winners of a Rhodes Scholarship. In June she’ll get her B.A. in government from Harvard; come fall, she’ll head to Oxford University to study political philosophy.

Saint John grew up in San Diego, and credits much of her success to her mother, Ruby, a junior high school principal.(Bonnie’s father, an engineer, died when she was 12.) “She never raised me as if I were handicapped—no special schools, no excuses,” says Saint John, who off the slopes gets around on a prosthetic leg. “It was just so apparent that Mother loved books and loved learning. She influenced me more by example than by admonishment.” Saint John became such an avid reader as a child that, she says, “I felt different not because I was handicapped, but because I was an egghead.” She first tried skiing at 14 and fell frequently. (“On one leg, you can’t even snowplow.”) But she became so addicted to the speed and freedom that she began to take jobs after school to save money for lessons and lift tickets.

“My philosophy, if I have one, is that nothing is sure, nothing is guaranteed,” says Saint John. “But the more work you do, the more the odds are in your favor.”