Flowers' return for second gold a family affair

Updated: January 8, 2006, 4:17 PM ET
Associated Press

Traveling with a 3-year-old can be quite an adventure -- all that extra packing, getting settled for long rides or flights, working in naps and meals on the road and answering endless questions.

Now, try it while training for the Olympics. On an itinerary that crisscrosses the globe. Oh, and make it 3-year-old twins, one of whom is deaf and had surgery in December in hopes of hearing for the first time.

That's life for Vonetta Flowers, whose "retirement'' after the Salt Lake City Games has turned into a far greater challenge than she ever could have imagined.

"My family's coming with me. Leaving them at home is not an option,'' said Flowers, who became the first black athlete to win a Winter Games gold medal when she and Jill Bakken drove USA-2 to victory in Salt Lake City, ending the United States' 46-year medal drought in bobsled.

"We get it done,'' Flowers said. "I don't know how we do it, but we do.''

Flowers planned to retire after Salt Lake City and focus on having a family. She and her husband, Johnny, wanted six kids, and she learned she was pregnant with twins not long after the Olympics ended.

While she was pregnant, though, she realized she missed competing.

"I was all for it. I think she's the best athlete on the team, and I didn't want to see her career end just because of kids,'' said Johnny Flowers, who, like his wife, is a former track star at UAB. "I knew the potential she had. I didn't want her to just quit bobsledding and not fulfill and reach for every opportunity she had.''

The boys were due Nov. 28, 2002. Five months into her pregnancy, Flowers went into pre-term labor. She was hospitalized, and doctors gave her drugs in hopes of buying her babies more time before they were born.

But Jaden and Jorden arrived Aug. 30, 2002, three months premature. Jaden, older by two minutes, weighed 3 pounds, 8 ounces, and spent six weeks in the hospital. Jorden weighed a pound less and was hospitalized for seven weeks.

"They were very long and thin. It's so funny to look at their little arm bands right now. They fit on my finger,'' Flowers said. "That was a difficult time. ... It was tough leaving the hospital, leaving them there. And then bringing Jaden home, I cried because he was leaving his brother.''

Complicating matters was that Jorden was born deaf. The nerve that connects his ears to the hearing part of his brain didn't develop fully.

"It's been a learning process for the entire family,'' Johnny Flowers said. "I don't think anybody can prepare you for dealing with a child with a disability. There's no class you can take, no lecture you can go to. It's just something you have to learn to deal with pretty quickly. If you don't deal with it, then it becomes overwhelming.

"It's never been overwhelming,'' he added. "It's been frustrating at times not having answers, but it's never been overwhelming.''

The couple took classes in sign language after Jorden was born, and Jaden has learned it right along with his brother. The family travels with a sign-language dictionary, and they pull it out whenever Jorden comes across something he doesn't know.

The Flowers initially were told to wait until their son was 5 or 6, and see if maybe the nerve would develop. But that wasn't good enough.

"If he's 5 or 6 years old, he's lost so much of an opportunity to learn. This is when a lot of the learning takes place,'' Johnny Flowers said. "We felt we had to do everything in our power to search and find if there was any type of way to get hearing right now.''

The couple found an operation they thought would help. Electrodes are implanted in the hearing area of the brain, allowing sound to travel directly from the ear to the brain.

But there was a catch: The surgery isn't done on children in the United States. There was a doctor who performs the surgery on children Jorden's age. And he is in, of all places, Italy.

"I think that her being in bobsled and her having the Olympics being here in a few months and her having raced in Italy is not an accident,'' Johnny Flowers said. "I believe God brought us back to the sport for a reason. I think it's in our quest to help Jorden.''

Jorden had the surgery in late December. After a two-month healing process, the device will be turned on.

"We are hoping for full hearing,'' Johnny Flowers said. "I'm totally confident everything will work out according to God's plan.''

But the surgery wasn't cheap, costing between $65,000 and $100,000, and it isn't covered by insurance. Johnny Flowers quit his job at Blue Cross Blue Shield after the boys were born so the family could be together while his wife trained, and they live off savings and her endorsement deals with Home Depot, Coke, McDonalds, DHL, Speedo and Kleenex.

Some of her sponsors offered to help with the surgery, but the couple will have to pay the entire bill before Jorden leaves the hospital -- yet another obstacle to overcome.

"As funny as it may sound, this is really where we believe we should be,'' Johnny Flowers said. "It's like any other family that has challenges, you just deal with them.''

And the challenges weren't going to deter them from Torino.

Five months after having the boys, Vonetta Flowers was back in training. Her old partner, Bakken, was taking some time off back then, so Flowers teamed with Jean Racine Prahm.

Prahm was Salt Lake City's "Mean Girl,'' ditching best friend and longtime brakewoman Jen Davidson two months before the Olympics and replacing her with track star Gea Johnson. When Johnson pulled her hamstring five days before the bobsled competition, Prahm called Flowers and asked if she wanted to switch sleds. Flowers declined, citing loyalty to Bakken.

Flowers and Bakken then won the gold, giving the U.S. its first bobsled medal since 1956.

"You'd think after everything that happened in 2002, it might be hard to compete. But everything came about great,'' Flowers said of teaming with Prahm. "We definitely talked a lot before we started sledding together. To make sure we were on the same page.''

And the partnership has worked. Flowers and Prahm were fifth at the world championships earlier this year, and they're in third place in the current World Cup standings after a win last month in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Life off the track has been just as smooth.

A typical day begins with breakfast together. While Flowers is training, her husband does schoolwork with the boys, who already are learning their numbers. They play, watch videos and take trips out to watch Mom on the bobsled track in a heavy-duty stroller built for snow and ice. At night, Flowers is back to being Mommy.

"It just requires a lot of patience, a lot of love,'' Prahm said. "Her husband's been awesome to support her through this next goal of the 2006 Olympics.''

The boys already are bobsled fanatics, trying on Flowers' helmet and pushing things around the house. Though they've seen Flowers' gold medal, they're still too little to comprehend what it means.

"They know she's Mommy and she bobsleds,'' Johnny Flowers said. "That's about the extent of it.''

Someday, though, the boys will appreciate the journey they've been part of these last three years, a journey Flowers hopes will result in another Olympic medal in Torino.

"I'll be able to share it with my kids,'' she said. "It won't just be my medal. It'll be with my husband and two kids.''


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press