- Lindsay Berra
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CESANA, Italy -- Vonetta Flowers is convinced that God has a plan for everyone, but this time around in her second Olympics, her family surprised her with a plan of their own.
Prior to the Games, Vonetta and Johnny Flowers decided the event would just be too hectic for their three-year-old twin boys Jaden and Jorden, who have been traveling the World Cup circuit with their mom and dad since they were five months old. So they left them with their grandparents in Florida.
Then, Flowers got a surprise. Just as Vonetta was explaining how much she missed her boys to Katie Couric during an interview on Monday's "The Today Show," the boys and Vonetta's mother, Bobbie Jeffery, walked out onto the set.
"When she said that, I thought they would be on TV from Florida and I'd get to see them that way," said Flowers. "When I saw them, I couldn't stop crying. Jaden thought something was wrong and Jorden just wiped my face with a Kleenex."
Kleenex, one of Vonetta's sponsors, picked up the tab for Jeffery, who got her first passport for the trip, and the twins to come to Italy. The twins wore ski caps with "My mom runs on ice" on the front and "What does your mom do?" on the back. The whole family was track-side Monday for Vonetta's first runs down the Olympic track at Cesana Pariol.
Flowers became pregnant with the twins just one week after becoming the first black athlete to win a Winter Olympic gold for the U.S. in Salt Lake City in 2002. She and then-partner, driver Jill Bakken, entered the Olympics as USA-2, overshadowed by USA-1's Jean Racine and Gea Johnson and two heavily favored German teams. But it was Bakken and Flowers who slid into history, winning gold over the No. 1 German team by three-tenths of a second.
When Bakken retired, Flowers paired up with Jean Racine, now Jean Prahm. Bakken later returned to the U.S. team, but Flowers chose to keep her seat in Prahm's sled. Their three-year partnership has made them family. Prahm often serves as babysitter when Vonetta and Johnny, who often have to stay on the other side of the hotel so the rest of the U.S. team can sleep, need a break.
"Her family is my family," Prahm said. "But Vonetta is amazing. I show up in the morning, I play with Jaden and Jorden, and we have fun. Then, at the end of the day when training is done and we're exhausted, I get to go back to my bed and fall asleep. But Vonetta has to take care of the boys. I don't know how she does it."
Especially since the twins were born three months early, leaving Jorden, just two pounds, eight ounces at birth, deaf. But not far from a World Cup stop at Italy's Cortina d'Ampezzo, Vonetta and Johnny found an angel: Dr. Vittorio Colletti of Verona, the only doctor in the world that performs auditory brainstem implants (ABI) on children under the age of 12. The risky procedure is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and can therefore not be performed in the U.S. On Dec. 20, Jorden became just the 18th child in the world to have the two-hour surgery, during which the ABI was implanted in his brain. After allowing the area to heal for one month, the device was turned on. That was one month ago.
"He's like a four-week-old baby that doesn't know what he's hearing, but he is responding to sounds," Vonetta said. "And he is more vocal now. We talk to him and he'll try to mumble back and it's so cute to see him do it."
For now, the family will continue to communicate with Jorden through the sign language they all, including Jaden, have been learning for the past few years. But they are hopeful that Jorden will one day hear and speak normally.
At Tuesday's women's bobsled final in Cesana Pariol, neither of the boys were present to hear the crowd cheering for their mom. They were back at the hotel with Grandma, out of the cold and snow. Prahm and Flowers, ninth heading into the final, put together two fast runs and moved their way up to sixth position. They watched as teammates Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming took silver.
"It's OK," said Flowers. "Not only did the Olympics bring me to Italy, they also brought me to the man that changed our lives. I already got my gold medal when my son's surgery was successful."
Even so, she might still get another chance at Olympic gold. Flowers plans to stay in Italy for several more weeks to meet with Dr. Colletti for Jorden's follow-up appointments. After that, she will head to Lake Placid, where she will try her hand at driving the bobsled.
"When I finished tonight, I thought that was my last time pushing a sled," she said. "I took a few runs down a few years ago and it was an amazing feeling to be in the front and in control. Hopefully, I'll come back as a driver next season and hopefully you'll see me back in four years in Canada as a driver."
Flowers will have her fate in her own hands. The fans will cheer her on. And, hopefully, her son Jorden will be able to hear it.
Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Vonetta Flowers wrapped up her Olympics without a medal, but it didn't matter. Her family was with her.