February 19, 2002 - Vonetta Flowers became the first black gold medalist in the history of the Winter Olympic Games.

Vonetta Flowers became the first black gold medalist in the history of the Winter Olympic Games. She and partner Jill Brakken won the inaugural women's two-person bobsled event.

By Jayda Evans
Seattle Times staff reporter

SALT LAKE CITY — Two things come to mind when thinking about Alabama: football and football. The only ice found is in cocktail glasses.

Until now.

Alabama's Vonetta Flowers became the first black person from any country to win Winter Olympic gold Tuesday when she crossed the finish line with Jill Bakken in the inaugural bobsled for women.

"To be the first African-American to win gold is a blessing and an honor,"
said Flowers, who lives in Helena, Ala., and is one of three
African-Americans on the U.S. team. "I just hope it opens the doors for
younger African-Americans, and hopefully they will want to give winter
sports a try."

Since being dubbed the "It Girl,'' Flowers hasn't been able to fully assess the place she carved in history in the midst of Black History Month. She doesn't even have an agent.

Heck, she's barely been able to sleep.

"The night is still happening," she said the day after.

The last 48 hours spent shinning her dimpled grin from interview to interview have been as surreal as her path to the bobsled. It's a sport she's been in for only 18 months.

A seven-time all-American in the long jump, triple jump and 100-meters at Alabama-Birmingham, the 28-year-old Flowers had dreams of running in the heat and sun at the 2000 Sydney Games. She'd never thought about starring in her own version of the 1993 movie "Cool Runnings," replacing the Jamaican men's bobsled story with her own Alabama version.

Even her family would tease about traveling at 85 mph down an icy course with G-forces whipping her head around like paddleball.

While she was ready to start a family after the 2000 Olympic track trials turned out to be a bust, her husband, Johnny Flowers, had a better idea. How about making it to the 2002 Winter Games in bobsled?

U.S. driver Bonny Warner posted the flier that caught Johnny's eye. Warner was looking to recruit track athletes to try out as pushers for the Salt Lake Olympics.

"He talked me into to doing this," she said. "But it was like a joke to me."

The tryout included tests in sprints plus a vertical jump. Flowers scored well in all phases and received an invitation to go to Germany to attend a bobsled instructional camp. Eventually the partnership with Warner led to placing eighth at the 2001 World Championships in Calgary.

Then she got dumped.

No biggie. Just back to Birmingham to start that family and work as an assistant coach for her alma mater's track team.

But Johnny, also a former track star, was relentless.

He had his 5-foot-6 wife training twice a day, putting on 20 pounds of pure muscle to be ready for the next call. That came about three months before the Salt Lake Games when driver Jill Bakken gave the pink slip to brakeman Shauna Rohbock.

"Shauna and I are still friends," Bakken said. "It was really, really hard to approach her and ask about a push-off with Vonetta, but I felt that's what I needed to do.

"It's typical in this sport. You just have to handle it professionally, which is not always done."

With the bobsled making its first-ever run at the Winter Olympics, the story most followed was the juicy soap opera starring Jean Racine. Racine ditched her original brakeman and best friend, Jen Davidson, for rookie Gea Johnson — but without a competition between them as Bakken had done.

The drama added another episode when Racine asked Flowers to join her team — two days before the Olympic final because Johnson had a hamstring injury.

"I think Jean was in a desperate situation, but I told her I was staying with Jill," Flowers said. "We knew we could do this. We knew we could make this happen."

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Last modified on Friday, 19 February 2021 12:58
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