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Vonetta Flowers On Switching To Bobsled And Being The First Black Athlete To Win Winter Olympic Gold

By Lisa Costantini | Feb. 17, 2022, 3:36 p.m. (ET)

Vonetta Flowers poses with her son Jordan (L), after Jordan and his twin were flown to Italy to surprise her during the Olympic Winter Games Turin 2006 on Feb. 19, 2006 in Sestriere, Italy.

 

When Vonetta Flowers — a star sprinter and long jumper at the University of Alabama at Birmingham — told her family she was thinking of making the switch from track and field to bobsled, they laughed. 

But it wasn’t a joke.

Flowers had a successful post-collegiate career in track, which at one time had her ranked third in the U.S. But after she failed to qualify for back-to-back Olympics in 1996 and 2000, thanks to multiple injuries and five surgeries, she opted to hang up her spikes to focus on starting a family.

Then opportunity knocked, and she said she almost didn’t answer.

“I was an assistant track and field coach at my alma mater (UAB) in 2000. After my failed attempts to make the summer Games, I had put on my coach’s hat to try to help one of my athletes live out their dream,” the now 48-year-old said. 

While at a track event, Flowers noticed a sign encouraging athletes to continue their dream by trying out for bobsled. Her husband, Johnny Flowers, a former football/track and field athlete, thought it would be fun for them to try out together. 

“I was still mentally trying to grasp the fact that my Olympic dreams were over,” Flowers said. But after her husband — who was her trainer for both Olympic trials — pulled his hamstring during the tryout, he told his wife, “Now you have to live out the family dream of going to the Olympics!”

That, she said, was “how my bobsled career began.”

Two years after that tryout, she would become the first African-American athlete to ever medal at a Winter Olympics — winning gold at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 in the two-woman bobsled. Twenty years ago also marked the first time the event was included in the Olympic program. 

“After our sled crossed the line, [Jill Bakken] and I were going crazy because the number 1 was showing by our time. At that point, we knew that we had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history.”

Not long after crossing the line, NBC sportscaster and former pro tennis player Mary Carillo shared that no other African American had ever won gold in the Winter Olympics. “I honestly had no idea! All I wanted to do was live out a childhood dream of winning a medal for Team USA,” shared Flowers.

Not long after crossing the line, NBC sportscaster and former pro tennis player Mary Carillo shared that no other African American had ever won gold in the Winter Olympics. “I honestly had no idea! All I wanted to do was live out a childhood dream of winning a medal for Team USA,” shared Flowers.

Four years later, at the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006, she would finish in sixth, a year after giving birth to twin boys. 

“My sons had their passports when they were five months old and began traveling internationally shortly after that,” Flowers said. “They became a part of the team, and their ‘aunts’ — my bobsled sisters — helped me raise them.”

Shortly after the 2006 Games, the gold medalist announced her retirement. 

Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken celebrate after winning the gold medal in the women's 2-woman bobsled during the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 on Feb. 19, 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

Growing Up


Flowers’ first memory of wanting to go to the Olympics started with her role model on the track, four-time Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. 

“I walked in her shadow,” Flowers shared. “I was inspired when I thought about what she accomplished. When I trained, I envisioned myself standing on the highest podium singing the national anthem.” 

Thanks to what she has accomplished, she is now a role model to other women. “I am truly humbled that the success that Jill and I had in 2002 is inspiring others to follow their dreams.” 

While the two-time Olympian has seen an increase in women — especially minorities — represented in bobsled events since the early 2000s, she said there is always room for improvement. 

With the success of other Black female bobsledders, such as Elana Meyers Taylor, Aja Evans, Kaysha Lov and Sylvia Hoffman, she said she is optimistic that others will continue to follow. 

She points to the USOPC’s FLAME (Finding Leaders Among Minorities Everywhere) Program, designed to inspire undergraduate and graduate students of color to pursue careers within the Olympic and Paralympic movements. 

What needs to be done to recruit athletes with a diverse background is to “identify which skills it takes to be successful and offer opportunities for kids to explore new sports,” she said.

This summer, the World Games 2022, which are taking place in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, will do precisely that. Flowers has signed on as an honorary co-chairperson for the event.

The 11-day international multi-sport event is always held the year after the Summer Olympics and will have athletes competing in more than 30 sports. 

“The city has never been more excited to host an event of this magnitude that will place us on an international stage,” the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame inductee said. “It’s almost game time in Alabama!”

Lisa Costantini

Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2011.

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Vonetta Flowers