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Vonetta Flowers Biography

Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Further Information


American bobsledder

Bobsledder Vonetta Flowers was the first African American to earn a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, and did so in her sport's first women's Olympic event. After a lifetime spent chasing the gold in track and field events, Flowers switched her focus to achieve it on the first-ever women's Olympic bobsled team.

Flowers was born October 29, 1973, in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised with three brothers by her single mother, Bobbie Jeffries. It's safe to say that children growing up in the South are not inclined to bobsledding; the sport is more popular in colder climes. Football is Alabama's sport. She took to track and field events as a child and never missed a practice. At age nine, she ran a 50-yard-dash that was so fast, her coach thought her time belonged to a thirteen-year-old boy. She was a natural, and she was dedicated. Her coach told her she could be the next great female track star, like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the legendary heptathlete medallist. She was an all-state star in high school, and a seven-time NCAA All-American at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In college, she competed in long jump, triple jump, 100 meters, 200 meters and relay teams. She failed to make the 1994 Olympic team after ankle surgery, and considered retiring, and finished 12th in the 2000 Olympic long-jump trials, still plagued by injuries. She had two knee operations and ankle surgery. Flowers is an assistant track coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her husband and coach, Johnny Flowers, is also an accomplished track and field athlete.

At the 2000 Olympic trials, Flowers saw a flyer advertising the U.S. bobsled team tryout. Veteran bobsledder Bonny Warner felt she could find raw talent in a track-and-field athlete. On a lark, Flowers and her husband decided to try out. The six-event competition included sprinting, jumping, and throwing a shot, all strong suits for Flowers. She earned a trial at the Olympic bobsled track in Park City, Utah. The only time she had even seen a bobsled was in the movie Cool Runnings, and didn't know what to expect. "No one told me about the G-force," she told the New York Times about her first 80mph ride down the icy track. "I

Vonetta Flowers

thought it was going to be a nice, comfortable ride. I was dizzy."

When Flowers sought sponsorship in her hometown to finance her training, no one could understand why someone in Alabama would want to bobsled. But with just two weeks of training Flowers, as the brakeman, with teammate and driver Warner, broke the world start record in 2000, and went on to win four World Cup medals, finishing in the top ten in all seven World Cup races. They finished the season ranked third in the world. Flowers stepped aside when Warner asked her to compete for her spot with another brakeman. Soon after, driver Jill Bakken asked her to join her team.

Competitive bobsledding started in upstate New York, where lumberjacks used to race the sleds they used to haul wood, and really took off in Switzerland. It's the brakeman's job to get the sled out of the gate fast and slow it down at the finish, and the driver guides it down the mountain. Bobsled competition was co-ed until an all-women's team took the U.S. national title. Women returned in 1992, as an exhibition at men's competitions in Europe. Women earned their own World Cup circuit in 1997, and female bobsledders campaigned the International Olympic Committee until they were granted their sport in the 2002 Olympics.

Jean Racine, the world's top driver, and Gea Johnson were the favorites coming into the Olympics. To many, Bakken and Flowers were not even a threat. But the number-one team was not a solid one. The world of bobsledding is surprisingly cutthroat. Racine had dropped her best friend and brakeman before the Olympic trials. When her replacement, Johnson, suffered an injury two days before the Olympics, Racine tried to lure Flowers away from Bakken. Flowers turned down the top-ranked driver to remain a part of the underdog team.

Flowers tuned out the 15,000 screaming fans, clanging cowbells and waving American flags, at the first-ever Olympic women's bobsled competition. "The crowd was tremendous," German bobsledder Nicole Herschmann told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It was the loudest crowed I've ever heard. The noise went right through my helmet." Bakken and Flowers's first run was a course record at 48.81 seconds. The combined time for their two runs, 1:37, earned them the gold, with German teams finishing second and third. Racine and Johnson finished fifth. Some attributed the poor finish to karma.

Flowers was greeted at the finish by her mother, husband, and childhood coach. No American had won a medal in bobsledding in forty-six years. It wasn't until after her win, in a tearful celebration, that Flowers was told she was the first African American to win gold at the Winter Olympic Games. "I didn't know I was the first African-American to win a gold medal," she said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Hopefully, this won't be the end of it. I hope it gives other African-American boys and girls an opportunity to give winter sports a try."

Flowers and Bakken were chosen to carry the American flag in the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. She appeared on front page of the nation's biggest newspapers, and was a guest with Katie Couric on the Today show. "This was a leap of faith," she said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The way I see it, God put me in this sport for a reason. All those years in track and field paid off. God had a plan for me in a bobsled. If God sees fit, I will be back."

Sketch by Brenna Sanchez

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