Vonetta Flowers was always a fast runner, and there was little doubt in the minds of those who knew her that she would one day compete in the Olympic Games.
That the Alabama native would become the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Olympic Winter Games while competing as a brakeman in bobsled, however, was a surprise.
A decorated collegiate track and field athlete at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Flowers went to her first U.S. Olympic Team Trials in 1996, competing in the 100-meter and the long jump. She fell short of a spot on the team, however, and after focusing her attention on the long jump, tried again in 2000. Hampered by injuries along the way, Flowers, then 26, once again failed to make the Olympic team.
Just when she thought her Olympic dreams were dashed forever, Flowers’ husband, Johnny, a track athlete himself, noticed an ad recruiting track athletes to try out for the U.S. bobsled team. They both decided to give it a go, and although a hamstring injury ended Johnny’s bid early on, Flowers stayed on and less than two months later was competing for the United States as a brakeman in international competition.
She and driver Bonny Warner went on to win four world cup medals in Flowers’ rookie season and finished ranked third in the world. The teammates later parted ways, however, and Flowers began pushing for driver Jill Bakken.
|Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken receive their gold medals in two-woman bobsled at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 20, 2002 in Salt Lake City.
The lead-up to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City — the first year in which women competed in bobsled — was not without controversy. Top-ranked driver Jean Racine asked Flowers to join her team after brakeman Gea Johnson suffered an injury, but Flowers stuck with Bakken. The duo slid to a gold medal at the Olympics, setting a course record of 48.81 seconds on their first run and logging a combined time of 1:37. Germany claimed the silver and bronze medals, while Racine and Johnson finished fourth.
The victory, Flowers later told TeamUSA.org, was a blur.
“We had to do interviews and the crowd was chanting ‘U-S-A’ and there were a lot of tears,” she recalled in a 2012 interview. “I think I cried for the next two months, and even if I look back at the video now I cry. There was a lot of crying, a lot of hugs, a lot of people congratulating us.”
Flowers returned to the Winter Games in 2006, where she finished sixth along with driver Jean Prahm (formerly Racine) before retiring from the sport.
After her gold medal win in Salt Lake City, Flowers said she didn’t know she was the first African-American to win a gold medal until after the fact, but hoped it would inspire other African-Americans to get involved in winter sports.