Lolo Jones’ transition from world-class runner to bobsled star has garnered plenty of attention heading into this month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, but before there was Lolo Jones there was Vonetta Flowers — a sprinter-turned-brakewoman who made history at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, where she became the first black athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
As a 9-year-old growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Flowers’ dream was to compete in the Summer Olympics. After finding success as a sprinter at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, her goal appeared to be within reach. The 1996 and 2000 Olympic Trials brought disappointment, however, and after failing to make the team at the 2000 trials in Sacramento, the then-26-year-old thought her hopes of competing for Team USA were over.
“Obviously I was devastated," Flowers said. "I knew it would be difficult to train for four more years to try to make it at the next Games."
"But at the trials in Sacramento, one of the bobsled drivers, Bonny Warner, posted flyers at team registration for track," Flowers continued. "My husband spotted one of her flyers, and at first it was a joke — ’Hey, let’s go try out for the bobsled team, then go home and tell all of our friends.’”
But after completing a six-item physical test to measure her speed, strength and power, Flowers learned that her potential in the sport was no joke at all. Two months later, she was in Germany learning how to push a bobsled alongside pilot (and former luge star) Warner.
“All I knew about bobsled was what I had learned from the movie ‘Cool Runnings,’” Flowers said. “I had never even watched bobsled on TV, so all I could go by was that movie. But I went out to Germany for a week, learned how to push a sled, and a month later I was in Austria competing in my first race. Everything happened so fast.”
At the end of her rookie year, Flowers has put on 20 pounds of muscle and she and Warner were ranked second in the US and third in the world. But in 2001, Warner ditched Flowers for Gea Johnson, leaving Flowers without a teammate and just shy of reaching her goal of being an Olympian.
“Of course, I was upset,” Flowers said. “I was so close to going to the Olympics and my dreams were over just like that, that quick. But my husband — he insisted that I keep training. So for that month while they were competing in Europe, I was still at home training, not knowing if I’d even be on the team again.”
It’s a good thing she kept at it, because Flowers would end up being invited back to train with the team a short time later, and she was eventually partnered up with Jill Bakken. And as fate would have it, Flowers and Bakken ended up beating out Warner and her new partner Bethany Hart (after Warner left Flowers for Johnson, Johnson left Warner to team up with Jean Racine) for the second of two spots in Salt Lake City.
Two months later, it was Flowers and Bakken atop the medal stand after a gold medal-winning run of 1 minute, 37.76 seconds in the finals.
“Going down the track as a brakeman you can’t see anything,” Flowers said. “So my head was down, but I can feel whether we’re having a good run because of bumps and slides. So I felt like we were having a great run but I didn’t realize we won until after we crossed the finish line.
“When I saw [that we won], so many emotions went through my body. I was so excited, so, so happy. It was a dream come true to be in the Olympics, and then to win a gold medal, in our country, with our family and friends there to support us, it was truly a dream come true.”
It wasn’t until later that she realized she was the first black athlete to win a Winter Olympics gold medal.
“All I knew was that Debi Thomas, who was a black figure skater, won a bronze medal in the Olympics, but I didn’t know the history until the interview after we won,” she said. “So I’m trying to take in the fact that we just won, and now I know I’m the first — I never set out to be the first, I just wanted to represent my country and win. But it felt wonderful.”
Later in 2002, Flowers gave birth to twin boys, but continued competing for the next four years. Flowers and Racine qualified for the 2006 Olympics, but finished sixth at Torino. Still, her journey, her accomplishments, and the inspiration she provides to other black athletes is nothing short of remarkable.
“God could have given that title to anyone, and he chose me, and I just hope that I inspire other generations to try things that they wouldn’t try,” Flowers said. “There’s so much diversity in the sport right now if you look at the girls that have qualified for the Games, some have said that I inspired them, and it feels so good. I just hope the new generation will inspire other kids to want to try it, too.”
(February is Black History Month and FOXSports.com will feature athletes who made significant contributions on and off the field in their lives.)