Flowers, Vonetta 1973–
Vonetta Flowers 1973–
Though she did not know it at the time, no African American had ever won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics until Vonetta Flowers took home the gold in 2002 at the Salt Lake City, Utah, Winter Olympic games. Flowers earned the medal when she pushed a 450-pound bobsled down an icy track to victory in the sport’s inaugural women’s Olympic event. She had long dreamed of winning an Olympic gold medal, but had never imagined herself winning in the snow and cold of Salt Lake City. She had spent her lifetime training and competing in track and field events, but she quickly adapted to the cold in order to take a shot on the first-ever women’s Olympic bobsled team.
Flowers was born October 29, 1973, in Birmingham, Alabama. She and her three brothers lived with their mother, Bobbie Jeffries, after their parents divorced. She had always dreamed of winning a gold medal, but thought she would accomplish it in track and field in the long jump. At age nine, Flowers ran a 50-yard dash that was so fast that her first coach thought her time belonged to a 13-year-old boy. She was a natural, and she was dedicated. In ten years on a team dedicated to helping inner-city kids get into track, she never missed a practice.
Her coach told Flowers she could be the next great female track star, like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the legendary heptathlete medallist, and the dream seemed likely. In high school she was an all-state star, and was a seven-time NCAA All-American when she competed for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. During her college career she competed in the long jump, triple jump, 100 meters, and 200 meters, and on relay teams. She finished 12th in the 2000 Olympic long jump trials, and won a gold medal at the 1994 Olympic Festival—not the Games—in the long jump. Injuries plagued the athlete, however, keeping her from her dreams of gold. She failed to make the 1994 Olympic team after ankle surgery, and considered retiring.
While she was competing at the 2000 Olympic track and field trials, Flowers saw a posted flyer advertising the U.S. bobsled team tryout. For 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. Though most Winter Olympians hail from the colder states, like Minnesota, Flowers earned a trial at the Olympic bobsled track in Park City, Utah. She had never even seen a bobsled in
Born October 29, 1973, in Birmingham, Alabama; daughter of Bobbie Jeffries; married Johnny Flowers (an athlete). Education: University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Career: Athlete. Began competing in track and field as a child; was an all-state star in high school; seven-time NCAA All-American in college, c. 1991-94; won a gold medal at the Olympic festival, 1994; finished 12th in the 2000 Olympic long-jump trials, 2000; tried out for Bonny Warner’s bobsled team; broke the world start record, won four World Cup medals and finished the season ranked third in the world, 2000; joined driver Jill Bakken’s team at Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, 2001, earned a gold medal in the first women’s Olympic bobsled event, and first African-American to win gold in Winter Olympic games, Salt Lake City, 2002.
Awards: Gold medal for bobsledding, Winter Olympic Games, 2002.
person, only in the movie Cool Runnings, and had no idea what to expect. “No one told me about the G-force,” she told the New York Times, about her first 80-mile-an-hour ride down the icy mountain. “I thought it was going to be a nice, comfortable ride. I was dizzy.”
In 2000, with just two weeks of training on how to push a bobsled, Flowers, along with teammate and driver Bonny Warner, broke the world start record. That year the team won four World Cup medals and finished the season ranked third in the world. However, Rowers balked when Warner asked her to compete with another brakeman in order to keep her spot. “Speed over loyalty is commonplace in the cutthroat world of bobsledding,” according to Los Angeles Times writer Bill Paschke. Flowers is known for her quiet, sweet, gentle disposition, but she felt she had earned her keep with Warner, and ended up walking away from the sport until another driver, Jill Bakken, offered Flowers a chance to compete as a member of Bakken’s team.
One of Flowers’s biggest challenges had nothing to do with her athletic prowess. Training for the Olympics is a notoriously expensive endeavor, and it was an enormous strain on her modest budget. Her husband put more than 216, 000 miles on his 1990 Honda Accord, driving his wife and her dream around the country to training events and trials, and Flowers arrived at the Olympics with neither endorsements nor an agent.
Jean Racine and Gea Johnson were the hot pair coming into the women’s event. Racine was the top driver in the world. They were the fastest, and the media darlings—they appeared on posters and were guests on television sportscasts. Bakken and Flowers were the “other” team. Many thought they did not even have a chance. But behind-the-scenes trouble plagued the number-one team. Racine had dropped her best friend, brakeman Jen Davidson, before the Olympic trials. Just two days before the event Racine tried to lure Rowers into pushing the top-ranked sled, after her new brakeman, Johnson, suffered an injury. But loyalty trumped speed for Rowers—she stuck with Bakken and declined Racine’s offer. “The conversation lasted about four minutes,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I told her no. I was going to be loyal to Jill.” It was a bold move to turn down a place with the top-ranked driver.
After the backstabbing, rumors, and gossip that had colored the days and weeks before the event, concentration was key for Flowers. She also had to shut out the noise from the nearly 15, 000 enthusiastic fans who had gathered to watch the first-ever Olympic women’s bobsled competition. And it had been 46 years since an American men’s team had earned a medal in the sport. “The crowd was tremendous,” German bobsledder Nicole Herschmann told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was the loudest crowd I’ve ever heard. The noise went right through my helmet.”
Bakken and Flowers were the tenth sled to run out of 15, and their first run, which took 48.81 seconds, was a course record. The combined time for their two runs—one minute, 37 seconds—earned them the gold medal. Flowers’s mother, husband, and childhood coach were there to meet her at the bottom of the course. Two German sleds placed second and third. Racine and Johnson finished fifth.
Moments after her win, in a tearful celebration, Rowers was surprised to find out she was the first African American to win Winter Olympic gold. “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.”
Unlike Racine and Johnson, Flowers became famous after she earned her medal. She appeared on the 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 bobsled. If God sees fit, I will be back.” Flowers is currently an assistant track coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her husband, Johnny Flowers, is also an accomplished track and field athlete.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 20, 2002, p. CI.
Detroit News, February 21, 2002, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2002, p. U1.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 24, 2002, p. 1.
New York Times, February 21, 2002, p. 3.
Vonetta Flowers Homepage, http://www.vonettaflowers.com/vonettaflowers/about-vonetta.asp (May 6, 2002).
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
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."
|1973||Born October 29 in Birmingham, Alabama|
|c. 1980||Begins competing in track and field|
|1982||Runs an astonishing 50-yard dash|
|c. 1987-91||Maintains all-state status in high school|
|c. 1991-94||Seven-time NCAA All-American while at University of Alabama at Birmingham|
|1994||Fails to make Olympic team|
|2000||Finishes 12th in Olympic long-jump trials|
|2000||Tries out for Bonny Warner's bobsled team|
|2000||Breaks the world start record|
|2000||Finishes the season ranked third in the world|
|2001||Joins driver Jill Bakken's team|
|2001||Places second in the Olympic trials|
|2002||First African-American to win gold in a Winter Olympics|
Awards and Accomplishments
|2000||Four medals, World Cup championships|
|2000||Third place, World Cup championships|
|2002||Gold medal, women's bobsled, Salt Lake City Olympics|
|2002||Olympic Spirit Award|
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."
"Flowers victory breaks ground." Detroit News (February 21, 2002): 8.
Hannigan, Glenn. "Salt Lake City 2002: Historic U.S. upset in bobsled—women make breakthrough in first attempt." Atlanta Journal-Constitution (February 20, 2002): C1.
Hiske, Michelle. "Flowers finds gold in cold." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (February 24, 2002): 1.
Plaschke, Bill. "Flowers shows what happens when someone takes a flier." Los Angeles Times. (February 21, 2002): U1.
Wise, Mike. "Changing sports, keeping a teammate." New York Times. (February 21, 2002): D5.
"Athlete profile: Vonetta Flowers." U.S. Olympic Team Home Page. http://www.usolympicteam.com/athlete_profiles/v_flowers.html (January 15, 2003).
"Red, white, and blue debut." CNNSI.com. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/olympics/2002/bobsled/news/2002/02/19/women_bobsled_ap/(January 15, 2003).
"U.S. women grab first bobsleigh gold." BBC Online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/winterolympics2002/hi/english/bobsleigh/newsid_1830000/1830688.stm (January 15, 2003).
"Vonetta Flowers." U.S. Bobled and Skeleton Federation Home Page. http://www.usbsf.com/vonettaflowers.htm (January 15, 2003).
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez