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Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Loyalty or sport? Bakken's choice gold

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com


PARK CITY, Utah -- What would you do?

You devote years helping build a sport from the ice up, begging and bribing operators to get a training run on the track, competing in events where the victors win sausages and laundry detergent, hoping that one day your sport will gain acceptance in the Olympics. You train for years with a partner who becomes a close friend and together you two become among the world's best at what you do. Then, mere months before the Olympics your performance begins to slip and you face an awful decision. Do you stick with your partner even though you think it might cost you the Olympic medal that has so long been a goal? Or do you tell your friend you're switching partners?

The gold medal driver of the women's bobsled faced that choice a couple months ago and she chose to drop her partner, placing her Olympic goal over all else.

And the funny thing is, her name is not Jean Racine. It's Jill Bakken, the U.S. bobsledder whose picture isn't on cereal boxes, the Olympian who isn't in credit card commercials.

While everyone focused on Racine after she dropped bobsled partner and best friend Jen Davidson, Bakken also dropped her longtime pusher, Shauna Rohbock, a couple months ago and brought in Vonneta Flowers. Tuesday night, Bakken and Flowers won the gold medal with two superb runs in the first women's bobsled competition in Olympics history.

"I'd like to give Shauna a lot of credit," Bakken said. "We were together three years and she was with me today as much as Vonneta when we were going down the track."

As for Racine? The woman who became the poster child for betrayal after she dropped Davidson two months before the Olympics to go with Gea Johnson instead? The woman writers dubbed "Mean Jean"? With Johnson limited by a painful hamstring injury, she drove the sled superbly but finished fifth, one half second away from a medal.

"There were definitely a lot of lessons learned," she said. "I'm 23 years old and this is my first Olympics and it's so hard to do everything right when you're faced with so many decisions. I still consider myself a pioneer in this sport. I think I helped make it what it is. I'm proud of what it is. There are a lot of questions in the media over decisions made and what was right and wrong, but that's for the athletes to decide."

She's right, though the coaches should have more say during this whole affair.

Look, bobsled drivers change brakemen the way Argentina changes president, but almost no one outside the sport knows or cares. That's because of two things. One, bobsled is a sport we only follow once every four years, and two, it's a sport in which we almost never learn the names of the athletes until the Olympics begin (unless Herschel Walker or Willie Gault wanders by the track).

"It happens all the time and I don't think most people realize that," bobsledder Bethany Hart said. "In athletics, it's not about friendship -- you train to win. I understand the friendship aspect but in the end, you have to go with the best athlete."

The only reason this was a soap opera is because Racine and Davidson became the first American bobsledders to ever market themselves (or have the opportunity to do so). They had a reported $500,000 endorsement package that put their faces on cereal boxes, and most infamously, in a credit card commercial that inexplicably is still airing. Thus, we actually knew who they were before the Olympics began and created the drama when they parted.

This is a sport, though, where years of experience for a pusher aren't as important as strength and speed. That's why the U.S. team recruited Walker and Gault and it's why Davidson recruited Johnson when performances began to slip. Johnson is a former NCAA decathlete champion who was banned from track for four years for using anabolic steroids and still looks as if she is wearing Bronko Nagurski's shoulder pads under her racing suit.

Meanwhile, Bakken was changing pushers as well by picking up Flowers, who was a seven-time All-America in track and field. It's just that nobody knew about it because people weren't seeing Bakken's face during commercial breaks for "Friends."

"I knew we needed to step it up if we wanted to get a medal in the Olympics," Bakken said. "It was very difficult to ask Shauna to have a pushoff with Vonneta and very difficult for her to do it. But she did, because she's an athlete and she knows how the sport works."

That decision looks smart now. Bakken not only won the gold medal handily with Flowers -- who is the first African-American to win gold in the Winter Olympics -- but also remains friends with Rohbock.

But the gold might have gone to Racine and Johnson if not for an injury. The two held the course record here but Johnson strained her hamstring Saturday, putting her health in question for the competition.

There was a moment when it seemed Racine might even ask Davidson back into the sled. The IOC ruled otherwise because Davidson had not participated in the U.S. trials, leaving Racine with a tough choice. Stick with the injured Johnson or go with a healthier substitute, such as Hart? In the end, she chose Johnson. "It's such a guessing game," she said. "But Gea had always come through before so I had to go with her."

With Johnson obviously struggling due to the injury, their push times were worse than 13 of the 15 teams. With a healthy pusher, Racine very likely would have been standing on the podium.

"I just feel sad because I think I let her down and I let the country down," said Johnson, adding she regretted not dropping out, which she should have done. "Because of the injury I could not perform today on two legs. I only had one."

The irony is that Racine picked performance over friendship a couple months ago and picked loyalty over performance last weekend and both decisions might have cost her a medal.

Meanwhile, Davidson was at the bobsled course Tuesday, serving as a forerunner (the people who take a sled down the course to check track conditions). It was a little like throwing out the ceremonial first pitch after being cut by a World Series team, but she put her best face forward, smiling broadly and saying she was delighted to have played her small part in the Olympics.

"There is a grieving process you go through, just as there is with a death," she said. "And there has been a grieving process. But part of that is moving on and enjoying these types of moments."

The first women's Olympic bobsled competition is over and now everyone will go back to ignoring the sport, though Bakken and Flowers both said they would welcome any of those endorsements -- "Feel free to call," Flowers said -- that both enriched Racine and turned her into a minor villain.

"I think I was that lucky driver who got a whole lot of media attention," Racine said. "Some of it was really good and some of it was really bad. I think I dealt with it well. I appreciate everyone following me and I think there are some lessons in that as well."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.