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Throwback: When Flowers created history in Salt Lake City after brave bobsleigh switch

February 19, 2002

Vonetta Flowers went from Summer Games reject to Winter Olympics legend in the space of less than 20 months.

In 2000, the Alabama athlete had finished a lowly 12th in the long jump at the US Olympic track and field trials. Dejected and disappointed, she returned to her hotel room in Sacramento, where her husband Johnny tried to lift her spirits by showing a flier he had picked up.

“Wanted: versatile athletes interested in the bobsled.”

The idea seemed ridiculous. Flowers had never even tried bobsled and few black athletes had competed in the sport, let alone excelled.

“There is no snow in Alabama,” Flowers later explained. “The only bobsled I saw was on TV, in the movie Cool Runnings.”

But with nothing to lose, she decided to give it a go. Two days later, she took the back seat of a sled with the woman who had handed out those fliers – US pioneer Bonny Warner. She was frightened, but exhilarated.

“No-one told me about the G-Force,” she said. “I thought it was going to be a nice, comfortable ride. I was dizzy.”

After that, Flowers was hooked, and her improvement was both rapid and dramatic. She qualified as brakewoman for the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002, alongside experienced driver Jill Bakken, a former Oregon State soccer player who had been in the sport for eight years.

“No-one told me about the G-Force,” she said. “I thought it was going to be a nice, comfortable ride. I was dizzy.”

Few gave them a chance of even winning a medal, with the USA’s first-choice sled of Jean Racine and Gea Johnson favourites for gold, but they put in a stunning opening run at the Utah Olympic Park.

Their time of 48.81 seconds put them out ahead and they were swift in the second run too, recording an overall time of 1:37.76. That put them ahead of the two German teams – Sandra Prokoff and Ulrike Holzner in second, and Susi-Lisa Erdmann and Nicole Herschmann in bronze.

Racine – who had tried unsuccessfully to get Flowers to drop Bakken and team up with her instead on the eve of the Games – and Johnson were down in fifth place.

Flowers entered sporting legend by becoming the first black athlete to win gold at a Winter Games. At the medal ceremony she cried as she mouthed the words of the American anthem and the two German teams lifted her up.


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