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 U.S. team.
"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 amazing."
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 other's fists.
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 win.
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 drivers.
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 runs.
She avoided the mistakes that plagued Prokoff on the lower portion of the 16-turn course, gaining a significant lead of 0.29 seconds.
"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, screamed encouragement.
In their second run, Prokoff and Holzner broke the start record again and finished in 48.96, putting the pressure on Bakken and Flowers.
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 Holzner.
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 here."