Growing up, she would watch the Olympics with her family and imagine being there — doing whatever sport she happened to be doing at the time. But she didn’t start taekwondo because she saw it as an avenue to the Olympics. At some point along the way, the Olympics became a goal within reach.
But St. Bernard also had a passion for the law. Before she went to law school, friends who she hadn’t seen in years would ask her when she was going to do “the whole law thing.” After attending Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., on a volleyball scholarship, she pursued business law at the University of Toronto. During her time at U of T, St. Bernard discovered martial arts — about eight months before starting law school. “I’ve always been interested in martial arts, but hadn’t found the opportunity or right coach and situation,” she tells Canadian Lawyer, admitting she was a relatively latecomer to the sport. “I was comfortably ready to move on from volleyball having done it for many years and quite possibly reached the height of my volleyball career.”
With volleyball, her options were limited: She could either play for the national team or pursue a career in Europe, where the sport is more popular. But volleyball is also a team sport that requires a commitment to scheduling, which wasn’t something St. Bernard could do through law school. She met a taekwondo coach through family and tried out a class at Young Choung Taekwondo Academy in Toronto. During her first class, someone held a target for her and told her to kick it. She started kicking, and hasn’t stopped.
On a physical level, taekwondo requires strength, balance, and speed. But it also requires mental focus and discipline, and helps to build confidence. “I fell in love with the sport,” says St. Bernard.
At the time, the club was home to several members of Canada’s national taekwondo team, so from the start, she could take high-level classes. Even though she didn’t have a background in the sport, with her volleyball experience, she was athletic enough to move with the class. “It was kick or get kicked, [and] I was getting kicked a lot. Eventually you kick back or you go home. I kept going,” she says.
It’s something she has managed to fit into an unorthodox schedule, although it can be tough. She had a major competition the weekend before her first law school exam. “It was crazy. Having gone through university as a varsity athlete and getting all the privileges of a varsity athlete, this was different. I was a complete beginner, and I was going to be late for exams because I was going to some competition.”
She joined McMillan as a summer student and in her interview was honest that competitive taekwondo was something she was going to pursue alongside law. Fortunately, the firm thought it was “awesome,” she says, even though that was not everyone’s initial reaction (generally more along the lines of, “When are you going to focus on what you should really be doing?”). The firm even extended her articling by three weeks so she could compete. “McMillan gave me the opportunity,” said St. Bernard. “I tend to work hard at everything I do, so as long as the work was good and the hours were there, they had no problem with me pursuing [taekwondo].”
St. Bernard has been with the firm since 2006 when she was called to the bar. As a member of the debt products group, she acts for lenders and borrowers in a variety of debt financing transactions, from corporate lending to debtor-in-possession financing. She also completed a secondment at the Ontario Securities Commission’s corporate finance branch during her articles with the firm.
During law school and for the first five years of her practice, St. Bernard would work during the day and train at night. “There were many nights where I was in the midst of a deal where work had to be done but I had a competition coming up and I had to train,” she says. “So there’s a constant pull.” But she’s always participated in some sort of competitive activity, so she makes it work. “There are a few 24-hour gyms in Toronto, so I do crazy things at crazy hours, I go with the flow a lot,” she says. “I do have to and need the benefit of the unit to be able to spar and do technical training, so I try to commit to regular evening classes at Young Choung,” which means sometimes heading back to the office late at night after a training session.
Now that she’s chasing the Olympics, St. Bernard has taken time off from law to focus on training (from two to eight hours a day). And while Toronto is still an important hub, she’s also training in Grenada and Cuba.
Taekwondo is quite new to the Olympics, and only 16 athletes compete in each of the four female divisions. She will compete in the under-67 kilograms sparring division. It’s her “last hurrah” at this competitive level, she says, and afterward plans to go back to the law and take it from there. “I’m enjoying the full-time athlete life but the grass is always greener,” she laughs. “I enjoy the practice of law and want to return to the practice of law.”
St. Bernard enjoys the nature of banking work, which she admits sounds odd to most people. “But you find your niche. There are a lot of negative or tough things that come with it — it is a tough profession [but] I enjoy the challenge.” It also involves both teamwork and independent work — much like the sport of taekwondo. “It doesn’t keep me in any type of box. . . . I’m always doing something different. I really enjoy the feeling of having accomplished something that seemed impossible,” she says of her law career — a statement that could equally apply to martial arts.
The greatest challenge of her job, she says, is finding work-life balance. “In more positive, lucrative economic times, it’s hard to stop and enjoy life and not just get sucked into the flow,” she points out. “Myself and many lawyers tend to have the type of personality to try to do more and more and more. The challenge is to slow down sometimes and not try to conquer the world every day.”
Perhaps not every day, but this summer in London, St. Bernard will indeed set out to conquer the world.