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Making It

A Successful Blend of Work, Play and Indomitable Spirit

Bonnie St. John Deane challenges the traditional approach to having it all.

February 11, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Having it all is a concept Bonnie St. John Deane knows well. Just 36 years old, she's already won a Paralympic silver medal as a disabled skier, attended Harvard, earned a Rhodes scholarship, been an award-winning IBM saleswoman and a White House economic policy advisor and started her own business. Not to mention she also found time to get married and raise a daughter, now 6.

But this rich life came at a price.

"I worried that I'd become an achievement junkie," she said. "And I realized I had to downshift to improve the quality of my life."

St. John Deane read numerous self-help books about "balancing" the elements of life: work, family and recreation. She said their messages were irritatingly similar: Individuals should methodically apportion time to each of their interests. St. John Deane tried, but her efforts always had the same result: Something--a project, a family goal--had to be sacrificed.

So St. John Deane devised her own life formula. She calls it "blending," integrating life elements, rather than separating them. This means that she can take her daughter to work and teach her about responsibility and ethics. She can exercise with her husband. And she can brainstorm ideas for her business while taking a refreshing walk on the beach by her San Diego home.

"My natural inclination is to be 100% committed to something," she said. "But I always ended up overcommitted somewhere, undercommitted elsewhere."

Blending, she said, has changed that. She's now able to pay attention to important tasks, sometimes simultaneously, and not feel she's neglecting others.

St. John Deane learned to think creatively at an early age. Born with a right leg markedly shorter than her left, she was informed at age 5 that doctors had to amputate the shorter leg. She was told a wooden prosthesis would enable her to walk more easily.

At first, she was excited about this news; she desperately wanted to walk like everyone else. For years she had been wearing a heavy metal brace and orthopedic shoes. But after the surgery, she found herself ostracized by her peers.

"I was called 'wooden leg' and excluded from games," she said. By second grade, she was convinced that she was ugly and undesirable, she said. At lunchtime, she sat in a playground corner and read books.

"Another way for me to escape it all was to live in my imagination, where I could go anywhere and be anything I wanted," she said. "I guess the whole thing, it makes you very tough."

St. John Deane heeded her mother's advice to use positive thinking techniques to counteract the harsh words. Her mother, a San Diego school vice principal, reared St. John Deane and two siblings on a tight budget while earning a PhD at night.

She showed St. John Deane that there were inexpensive ways to keep one's mind positively focused: She collected inspirational books, wrote affirmations and attended motivational speeches with St. John Deane in tow.

"I began giving myself inner pep talks," she said. Rather than focusing on her isolation and challenges as an amputee, St. John Deane directed her energies to excelling at her studies. Despite others' concerns, she also pushed her physical limits. She took up water skiing and horseback riding. As she racked up accomplishments--success at school, mastery of sports--she trained herself to walk and talk with confidence.

But when a friend invited her to ski in Mammoth, St. John Deane found herself insecure and afraid again. Could an amputee ski? To allay her fears, she called organizations for the disabled and interviewed the president of Amputees in Motion, a San Diego club. She read the "Guide to Amputee Skiing" by Hal O'Leary. She investigated the challenges she'd have: getting on and off chairlifts, standing and falling. And, with the newfound knowledge, she conquered her fears.

"That's something about Bonnie," said Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA in Rockville, Md., who's known St. John Deane for 20 years. "When she goes after something, she does it with a vengeance and she makes sure she learns everything she needs about it. She was very organized about her approach to life. She set goals and went after them."

Her ski trip turned out to be life-changing, but only because St. John Deane persevered with her ski instruction. At first she fell constantly. Then, when she finally could stay upright, she faced another obstacle: As an amputee, she couldn't snowplow, which made slowing down and stopping very difficult.

"The better I got, the harder I crashed," she said. Again, she challenged herself to focus on the positive: On skis she could travel "like flying," she said. "I could be graceful and go fast for the first time in my life."

By her fifth day, she was tackling intermediate slopes. She decided to train for racing. She was accepted into an elite Vermont ski school, but she fractured her left leg in a skateboard accident and, six weeks later, broke her artificial leg. Her replacement prosthesis was lost in the mail for three weeks.

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