Golden Girl

By Lisa Ann Cockrel
Updated: December 30, 2005

On February 19, 2002, Vonetta Flowers, then 28, made Olympic history. She became the first person of African descent—American or otherwise—to medal in the Winter Games when she and teammate Jill Bakken jumped into a speeding bobsled and hurled themselves downhill in record time, winning the gold medal for the U.S.A. at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Vonetta instantly became America’s celebrity du jour. In the whirlwind of press coverage that followed the competition—”We didn’t sleep for two days!” she remembers—Vonetta was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and traded quips with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer on the Today show. Under the intense media spotlight, there was one message Vonetta repeated time and time again, “I thank God for this win, because without him I wouldn’t be here.”

That wasn’t an empty platitude for this mom of twins from Birmingham, Alabama, for whom faith played a crucial role in her winding path to the top of the medal podium at the Olympics.

Olympic Dreams Vonetta was singled out at the age of nine as a track athlete with Olympic potential. “My first track coach, Dewitt Thomas, told me I could be the next Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and I believed him,” she says. So while other kids played, she ran and practiced singing the National Anthem with hopes of being in the Olympics. “But it was always the Summer Olympics I pictured,” she laughs.

Vonetta’s speed propelled her to the University of Alabama at Birmingham on a full-ride scholarship, where she became one of the school’s most decorated student athletes and the first person from her family to graduate from college. She had her first opportunity to try out for the U.S. Olympic track and field team in 1996 as a college senior, but ankle injuries leading up to the competition contributed to a disappointing thirteenth-place finish.

“When I failed to reach the Olympics in 1996, I started to question my fate,” Vonetta remembers. “I’d achieved a lot of success in track and field based on my individual efforts, and I believed if I trained hard enough and stayed healthy, that would be enough for me to make the Olympic team. I didn’t yet realize I needed God in my life to help me find my purpose and to understand that what he wanted for my life was far greater than anything I ever could have imagined.”

The following year, she started attending church with a friend. “Before I became a Christian, I didn’t feel like a bad person, but I was lost,” she says. “The decision to accept Christ as my Savior meant I was going to follow Jesus’ footsteps day in and day out. My Bible became more than a book I carried to church on Sunday. God’s Word came to life, and I turned to it often for strength.”

In 1999, Vonetta married fellow athlete and pastor’s kid, Johnny Flowers. Bolstered by a belief that God was in control of her athletic career, and with Johnny at her side serving as coach, Vonetta started training again with hopes of making the 2000 Olympic team.

But injury struck again. In January of 2000, just four months before the Olympic trials, Vonetta underwent her fifth ankle surgery in eight years. Still, she was optimistic when the event finally arrived. “You never know what’s going to happen in track and field events,” she says. “You can pop one good long jump and make the team. I thought, Hey, maybe I can pull one out.” But she couldn’t, and it looked like her dream was over.

“As the Bobsled Turns” It was Johnny who saw a flyer encouraging track and field athletes to try out for the U.S.A. bobsled team. “I said, ‘No way,'” remembers Vonetta, who was still trying to deal with the death of her Olympic dreams. “We argued about it all the way to the track, and up until the last minute I insisted I wasn’t gonna do it. But Johnny pleaded with me to have some fun, so I decided to go for it.”

Two weeks later Vonetta received a phone call—”I’d like you to come to Germany to learn how to push a bobsled.” The woman offering the invitation was Bonny Warner, a world-class bobsled driver. After several weeks learning alongside other bobsledding hopefuls, Vonetta was offered the position of brakeman in Bonny’s two-person sled. By the end of 2001, the duo was ranked third in the world. It looked like an easy straightaway to the 2002 Winter Olympics. Vonetta’s dream was alive.

Then Bonny dumped Vonetta for another brakeman.

“I was devastated,” says Vonetta of her introduction to the political underbelly of the sport. For almost two weeks, she didn’t do anything, mourning once again the loss of her Olympic dreams. But then Johnny stepped in. “He said, ‘God put you in this sport for a reason, so we’re going to start training again,'” says Vonetta. “I’m like, ‘Training for what? I’m off the team!’ But he just kept saying, ‘God put you in this sport for a reason.'”

Vonetta was dubious, but she started training again. “I’d forgotten who’s in charge,” she says. “It’s not me; God’s in charge and he knows how everything is going to turn out.” Within a week of returning to the track, she received a phone call from Jill Bakken, the number-two driver in the world, asking Vonetta to join her team.

The Winning Moment Together Vonetta and Jill made it to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. But the night before what would be their history-making competition, Vonetta got another phone call. Jean Racine, the number-one driver in the world, asked Vonetta to leave Jill and join her sled. Was she tempted?

“No, I was loyal to Jill. And I’d been loyal to Bonny before that, even though she wasn’t winning all the races,” she says. “Even if Jill and I would have finished last, I would have been happy with my decision to stay.”

With all the attention on Jean Racine’s heavily favored team and a strong German contingent, Vonetta and Jill’s win stunned the Olympic crowd. But there was one man in the crowd who wasn’t the least bit surprised—Vonetta’s first track coach, Dewitt Thomas. He was the first to recognize Vonetta’s Olympic potential and he had a message for her. “He said, ‘God didn’t let you win this medal just for you. The Lord let you win so you can look at another young girl from the ghetto and encourage her,'” remembers Vonetta. “The message struck me, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

As a role model for athletes everywhere, especially African American athletes eyeing winter sports, Vonetta encourages people to be open to change. “I hope my involvement in the Winter Olympics inspires others to consider their options,” she says. “If I’d stayed focused solely on track and field and ignored Johnny’s encouragement to try out for the bobsled team, I would have missed all this. I hope I can inspire people to be open to change and, ultimately, open to God’s leading in their lives.”

Sliding into the Future Once Vonetta’s bobsledding days are over, she hopes to return to track and field. “Johnny and I have talked about coaching together someday,” she says. They’ve also talked about more kids. Vonetta gave birth to twin boys, Jorden and Jaden, in 2002. “The boys have been a lot of work, but so much fun,” she says. “We want at least two more.”

Today Vonetta spends her mornings training for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, at her local track with Johnny, Jorden, and Jaden on the sidelines. “The boys know a lot of words most kids their age don’t, like ‘track,’ ‘luge,’ and ‘bobsled,'” she says. While the boys take their afternoon naps, Vonetta gets in another workout in her home gym. She clearly loves having the boys always in tow and her husband at her side as she trains and travels around the world to compete.

But this time around, Vonetta’s no longer a long shot at those competitions. She and her current partner, Jean Racine, with whom she teamed up when Jill took a break from the sport, are favored to win gold in Torino. But Vonetta refuses to give in to the pressure. “I just put my faith in God and let him take over. I do my job of training and put the rest in his hands.”