A pioneer of women's bobsled

Jan. 22, 2015, 11:05 a.m. (ET)

A pioneer of women’s bobsled

As Jean Prahm, formerly Jean Racine, and her brakeman, Gea Johnson, took to the ice for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, there was an unusual vibe in the Park City, Utah air. Bobsled, a sport with a deep and rich tradition, made its initial Olympic presence at the 1924 Chamonix Games. But this time the competition looked different with a new discipline: women’s bobsled.

As Prahm and Johnson reached the bottom of their run, eyes tilted skyward anxiously looking for the digital board displaying their downtime, the real achievement had already been revealed. Everyone at the Utah Olympic Park could feel history being unveiled right in front of their eyes. A sport that is very much known for being an “old-boys’ club” was starting to evolve and Prahm was right at the forefront.

Several years before that winter evening in Park City at the youthful age of 13, Prahm was first introduced to the world of sliding sports.

“I was first recruited into the sport of luge,” Prahm said. “The U.S. Junior Luge program held an annual recruitment tour called the 'Luge Challenge.' The tour happened to make a stop in my hometown of Waterford, Michigan in 1992, and I was introduced to my first sliding sport. During the four years that I raced for USA Luge, I became aware that there were women competing in the sport of bobsled. Although it was not yet an Olympic discipline, I believed that there was a good chance that it would become an Olympic discipline in the future. So I went to Lake Placid, N.Y. and completed the physical testing with the bobsled team during the summer of 1996. After attending a bobsled driving school in Calgary, Canada, I knew that I wanted to compete in bobsled, and so I switched over from luge to bobsled in 1996.”

Prahm made the switch to bobsled the same year she graduated from high school, but it wasn’t necessarily the smoothest transition. For the first four years of her career as a bobsled athlete, there was no international competition for women. Prahm and the other women in the sport of bobsled trained endlessly, just as hard as the men, but they had nothing to show for their hard work. 

“There were many obstacles women's bobsled had to overcome during my time on the bobsled team,” Prahm said. “During the ‘90s, we were slowly gaining support from our male counterparts, but the international bobsled tour seemed in some respects like a private men's club. There were many who tolerated our presence in the sport, but they didn't really want us there.”

One of the concerns raised around allowing women to compete was the physically demanding nature of bobsled. A bobsled is a very heavy piece of equipment, and there were definitely concerns about women being able to push and drive a sled.

“If only I had a quarter for every time I was told that bobsledding was too dangerous for women,” said Prahm. “Yes, bobsled can be a dangerous sport, as can luge, downhill ski racing, speed skating, ski jumping, equestrian, boxing and football. There is an element of danger in many sports. I absolutely loved racing.”

Prahm didn’t let the concerns slow her down. She continued to work hard and push towards her goal of competing in the sport she had grown to love.

“I consider myself fortunate that there were enough voices supporting my desire to bobsled that I was given that opportunity,” she said. “I believe that all of us on the team felt that way during those first years. We just loved bobsledding and wanted to race!”

But she wasn’t just fighting for herself, or her teammates. As the American women bobsled athletes continued to fight for inclusion in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, there was a large question still uncertain for women’s bobsled: While Team USA was ready for international competition, were the other nations prepared?

“There was concern that there weren't enough nations regularly participating to warrant inclusion into the games,” Prahm said. “How we overcame this as a sport was really simple. The reality was that there were many smaller nations who wanted to race but they didn't have the financial support from their own nation to fully field their teams on tour. The U.S. team, and a few other nations as well, supported these smaller nations. There were a few seasons where we supported teams from Poland, Jamaica and New Zealand. We invited them to travel and train with us. We even allowed them to utilize our coaching, equipment and sled technicians. It was really a great experience, because we got to know athletes from other parts of the world. As a team, we felt like we were doing our part to help grow the sport internationally.”

Regular participation was growing and the international federation held the inaugural women’s bobsled World Championship in Altenberg, Germany in February of 2000. Prahm, who had worked for more than four years to get to this point in her bobsled career, was ready for the stage. She slid to the silver medal, alongside teammate Jennifer Davidson.

The World Championship was a huge step for the sport of women’s bobsled, but it still wasn’t enough. The goal for Prahm and the other women’s bobsled athletes was simple; they wanted the opportunity to race in the 2002 Olympic Games and they wouldn’t stop until they achieved this dream. It was much bigger than Prahm or any other individual athlete. After all, bobsled isn’t an individual sport. It’s cohesion of two or four athletes, who work together to achieve greatness. So they pushed forward, working just as hard off the ice as they were on the ice.

“All of our athletes worked hard to gain support for women’s bobsled inclusion, and this went well above and beyond our training and competition,” Prahm said. “Letter writing campaigns, phone calls and meetings with the likes of Mitt Romney (President, Salt Lake Organizing Committee) , Anita Defrantz and even Prince Albert of Monaco, who were both members of the International Olympic Committee. Getting into the games was truly a team effort including the athletes, National Governing Bodies, Olympic Committees and the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee. It couldn't have happened without every one of these organizations supporting us. Everyone worked hard in their efforts to show that women's bobsled was ready for its Olympic debut.”

Finally, the sport had the recipe it needed to be included with athletes from several nations participating, but most importantly, it had the political support.

And then it happened. The announcement came that women’s bobsled was to be included in the events held at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

“When I received the call that women's bobsled would be an event at the 2002 Olympic Games, words could not describe my emotions,” she said.

Now that women’s bobsled was officially included in the Olympic Games schedule of events, it was time for Prahm to get back to solely focusing on her athletic performance. Prahm and Davidson returned to the 2001 World Championships, where they once again claimed the silver medal.

Heading into the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Prahm had overcome so many obstacles already. She had fought to become one of the best in the world in a sport with an uncertain future. She had pleaded with international committees and the politicians that served for these organizations. More importantly, she had succeeded in both aspects. But as she prepared for the Olympic Games, there was a new challenge that faced Prahm.

“Being labeled as the gold medal favorite heading into the 2002 Games was pretty wonderful,” she said.

Any athlete would rather be a favorite than an underdog. Regardless of what some may say, there is always a sense of confidence knowing you are the person or the team to beat. However, there are definitely expectations that are associated with being a favorite. Some don’t like the pressure, but Prahm had worked six long years for this moment and she wasn’t going to allow herself to squander it.

Unbeknownst to her, there were unseen circumstances that were beyond Prahm’s control. Her partner, Gea Johnson, suffered a hamstring injury during official training, which severely dampened the team’s ability.

However, as Prahm and Johnson took the ice for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, there was an unusual vibe in the Park City air. Bobsled, a sport with a deep and rich tradition made its initial Olympic presence in the 1924 Chamonix Games. But this time the competition looked different. As they sped through the track, turning in a time of 49.31 seconds, there time didn’t look that much different. But it was different and not in a bad way.

As Racine and Johnson reached the bottom of their run, eyes tilted skyward anxiously looking for the digital board displaying their downtime, the real achievement had already been revealed.  Everyone at the Utah Olympic Park could feel history being unveiled right in front of their eyes. One thing was for certain; it was a monumental moment for the sport of bobsled. A sport that is very much known for being an “old-boy’s club” was starting to evolve and Prahm was right at the forefront.

After a slightly slower time of 49.42 seconds in the second run, Prahm and Johnson would finish in fifth place, 0.97 seconds behind American teammates Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers.

“The injury and our performance was disappointing,” Prahm said. “I was, however, thankful we had such depth in our team that the USA-2 sled of Bakken and Flowers was able to capture the gold medal in the race.”

Regardless of the disappointment in her personal performance, Prahm realized the significance of the event.

“Being the first in anything these days is pretty unique, and I definitely felt like I was a part of something much bigger than myself,” she said. “Racing in the games was tremendous.”

Prahm would continue racing following the Salt Lake City Games. She teamed up with Flowers to earn the bronze medal at the 2004 World Championships in Koenigssee, Germany and returned to the Olympic Games in 2006 Torino. But Prahm would again fall just short of the medal stand, finishing in sixth place with Flowers, while teammates Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming slid to the silver medal.

After a couple of physically demanding seasons and her first child on the horizon, Prahm decided to retire following the 2006 Torino Games. She had achieved so much for herself and for the sport of bobsled.

“After overcoming a significant back injury in order to compete in the 2006 Games, I knew that my time as a competitive racer was at an end,” Prahm said. “When my husband and I found out that we were expecting our first child, that really solidified my retirement. I knew that it was time to enter a new phase in my life. I remained connected to the sport through my friends that were still competing on the team. It was those same teammates who reached out to me in 2009 to see if I would represent them on the newly formed Team Selection Committee as an athlete representative. I also became a member of the Strategic Planning Committee for USA Bobsled and Skeleton that same year. I continue to serve on the Team Section Committee, and I am very glad I am able to continue to give back to the sport in this way.”

The sacrifices and the determination that Prahm made to the sport of women’s bobsled put the initial dominos in motion and is a huge part of the progression we are seeing in the sport today. Just last year, in 2014, the international federation announced that women would be eligible to compete in the four-“person” event at the international level. Jumping at the opportunity presented to her, American pilot Elana Meyers Taylor became the first American woman to participate in the four-person competition at a World Cup level.

“Women's bobsled has remained in a growth phase well past my retirement from the sport,” Prahm said. “Each year we are seeing faster and stronger athletes coming out for the sport. Records are being challenged and beaten each season. It is especially exciting this year to see the opportunity for women to begin racing internationally in the four-person event. This opportunity has been a long time coming, and I am absolutely thrilled that Elana qualified and earned the right to race on the four-person tour this year. It speaks volumes about her abilities as an athlete as well as her determination to break new ground in our sport.”

Breaking new ground is something that Prahm is very familiar with and something she hopes will continue in women’s bobsled.

“I hope to see bobsled continue to grow in all disciplines of the sport,” she said. “Bobsled is a sport that is so exciting, fast, cutting edge and also full of Olympic tradition. If you are one of the lucky few who are able to catch a ride in a bobsled at some point in your life, you will probably agree that it was a crazy, fun experience that will never be forgotten!”

“I have no idea what the international bobsled organization is planning down the road for women's participation in four-person bobsled,” Prahm continued. “Our sport is somewhat unique in the respect that men and women can feasibly and fairly compete together. Will the international federation eventually mandate coed participation in four-person bobsled, or create a separate discipline for four-women bobsled? While I think there are others out there who have a better idea than I do, and I am excited to see what the future holds.”

Her life may look a little different now, but she still remains just as motivated with her new priorities.

“My life is currently centered around my family,” she said. “I have a wonderful husband, and three kids under the age of eight, so life is busy. I continue to stay active in the Olympic Movement and find opportunities to speak at schools in the effort to inspire the next generation, and instill Olympic ideals. I am also the developer of a postnatal recovery garment for new moms which is available online. You can find out more about this by visiting our website www.mommyhips.com.”

When looking at the future and Prahm’s post bobsled career, it is very hard not to remember the past. We should never forget what sacrifices people have made to allow us to be in our current situation. One certainty that will always hold true is that Prahm will forever be remembered as one of the pioneers of women’s bobsled.

“It is quite an honor to be considered a pioneer of women's bobsled,” Prahm said. “I competed during the years when the women's discipline became fully realized and gained acceptance as an Olympic sport. In truth, there were many women who competed in the sport long before me, and without them, my Olympic dreams might not have happened.”

Just like the sport of bobsled, the success and the acceptance of the women’s discipline is much larger than a single person, but without individuals like Prahm, we would not be witnessing Meyers Taylor competing with the men. Though she no longer competes in bobsled, Prahm will always be an integral part of the sports history.

Cole McKeel - USBSF Marketing and Media Assistant, cmckeel@usbsf.com, (719) 722-0522