Tuesday, February 19, 2002 Updated: February 20, 3:02 AM ET
Bakken, Flowers break drought, and a landmark
PARK CITY, Utah -- No one had really given Jill Bakken and
Vonetta Flowers a chance. They weren't even supposed to be the best
Jill Bakken, right, and Vonetta Flowers got themselves off to a good start to win the women's bobsled.
"A lot of people saw us as the 'other' team," Flowers said.
"We came here to prove people wrong."
That they did, winning the inaugural women's bobsled Tuesday
night by beating the favored Germans and the much-hyped Jean Racine
in the other American sled.
The victory by USA-2 ended a 46-year drought for the United
States. America had not won an Olympic bobsled medal since Arthur
Tyler took the four-man bronze in 1956 and had not won gold since
his brother, Francis, won the four-man in 1948.
There was also an Olympic landmark: The 28-year-old Flowers
became the first African-American ever to win a gold medal at a Winter Games.
"Hopefully, this will encourage other African-American boys and
girls to give winter sports a try because you don't see too many of
them out there," she said.
The former college track star once had other Olympic dreams, but
two knee operations and ankle surgery dashed those hopes.
"I have truly been blessed to come into this sport and pick it
up so fast," said Flowers said, unable to stop crying. "My goal
was to make the Summer Olympics. God had a different plan for me."
Sandra Prokoff and Ulrike Holzner won the silver in Germany-1
while compatriots Susi Erdmann and Nicole Herschmann took the
bronze. Racine and Gea Johnson finished fifth.
"I think I'm going to be looking back at this for a long
time," Racine said.
In December, Bakken and Racine faced the same quandary: Both
needed a new brakewoman to push their sleds.
Racine dumped her best friend and chose Johnson, a muscular
former heptathlete from Arizona; Bakken took Flowers, who once ran
track at UAB and didn't try bobsledding until after she failed to
qualify for the U.S. team headed for the 2000 Summer Olympics.
"I don't even know what to feel," Bakken said. "It's
Even more amazing were the 11th-hour antics of Racine after
Johnson injured her left hamstring Saturday night. After the race,
Racine said she had asked Flowers over the weekend to consider
changing sleds. Flowers declined.
The race was gripping from the start. Dressed in matching
bodysuits, Bakken and Flowers stood behind their bright red bobsled
ready to begin their push to history.
They seemed to forget the two German teams had won every World
Cup race in the 2001-02 season. Standing in the start house, they
stared through the visors of their black helmets and pounded each
They flew down the track twice at 80 mph, winning with a two-run
time of 1 minute, 37.76 seconds. Prokoff and Holzner were second in
1:38.06, with Erdmann and Herschmann at 1:38.29.
Racine and Johnson were timed in 1:38.73. Johnson was in severe
pain and crying as she hobbled off the track.
"America was on the podium today, and that was the goal," a
tearful Racine said. "We didn't win, but America did."
Racine had been picked as America's hope, but arrived at the
Olympics in disarray. After dominating the World Cup tour for two
years with best friend Jen Davidson, she suddenly was unable to
She created a stir by replacing Davidson with Johnson, who once
served a four-year suspension after testing positive for anabolic
steroids. Davidson protested but withdrew her complaint in January
shortly after the start of an arbitration hearing. Their
friendship, however, was over.
The decision to switch teammates -- common among the men -- was
prompted by the success of the German teams, both featuring big
Prokoff and Holzner broke the track push record on their first
run with a time of 5.32 seconds. Undaunted, Flowers helped propel
USA-2 to a 5.31 start record.
That gave the Americans an edge, and Bakken, who lives in Park
City, showed her savvy on a track on which she has made hundreds of
She avoided the mistakes that plagued Prokoff on the lower
portion of the 16-turn course, gaining a significant lead of 0.29
"I didn't want to count anyone out," Bakken said. "I knew we
had a good lead, but it didn't matter. Any one of the other teams
could have had a great run."
After the first run, the Americans were all hugs and smiles. Two
coaches joined in and scores of fans, including Bakken's mother,
In their second run, Prokoff and Holzner broke the start record
again and finished in 48.96, putting the pressure on Bakken and
Tension built before their second run, the last of the night.
Bakken, with a history of struggling to put together two good runs,
came back with a time of 48.95 seconds, 0.30 ahead of Prokoff and
With a capacity crowd of 15,000 roaring, the finish line became
a scene of wild celebration.
"I don't see very well," Bakken said. "I didn't know we had
won until we got close to the timing clock."
As Racine watched history unfold without her, Bakken celebrated
and her teammate wept.
"I'm so happy," Flowers said. "I never thought I would be