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USA Olympic teams introduces color to the winter games

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- How old are you when you start to figure out you're fast?

Five? Six, maybe?

Isn't that about when you realize that every time all the kids run to the same place you get there first?

Well, it was about that time then that Vonetta Flowers started imagining being where she was Wednesday night on the top step of a graduated podium and wearing a gold medal around her neck.

Flowers was always the fastest kid on her block. And she first became hooked on the Olympics by watching Jackie Joyner-Kersee tear up the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Right then, she decided that's what she wanted to do. She wanted to run as fast as she could with as many people as she had ever seen cheering louder than anything she had ever heard.

So the setting was kind of familiar Wednesday night when she received the medal she had earned the day before. It was the surroundings that were a little unusual.

The snow, the mountains and all the wool in the crowd at Salt Lake City's Olympic Medals Plaza was not quite what Flowers saw all those times she imagined her golden moment.

And how could she have dreamt this?

Her sport, women's bobsleigh, wasn't even an Olympic event until this year.

And no African-American had ever won a gold medal in the Winter Olympics until she did Tuesday.

"I have truly been blessed to come into this sport and pick it up so fast,'' said Flowers, who was on the underdog U.S. team that won the first women's bobsleigh competition in the Olympics Wednesday. "I never thought I'd be here. My goal was to be in the Summer Olympics.''

Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Flowers played volleyball and basketball, but she earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama as a track athlete. She even qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1999, finishing 12th in the long jump.

But instead of her long-held Olympic passion ending there, a new one began.

Flowers' husband saw a leaflet Bonnie Warner had posted in an attempt to recruit track athletes into women's bobsleigh because speed and strength are ideal for the sport's pusher position. Warner was a thee-time luge Olympian and was instrumental in women's bobsleigh being added to the Games.

She and Flowers started training together and were a team until October, when Warner changed pushers. So Flowers was sitting at home, her Olympic dream apparently dashed again, when Jill Bakken, another driver attempting to make it to Salt Lake, called said she was looking for a new pusher for her sled.

"I thought I was done with the sport,'' said Flowers, whose second Olympic setback might have surprised friends.

She hadn't told many people back in Birmingham that she was taking up bobsleigh. And when she did, they naturally had a few questions. Like, what's bobsleigh?

The sport was not exactly big in Flowers' flat, snowless hometown. And although NFL players such as Herschel Walker and Willie Gault had been on previous U.S. teams, even Birmingham's budding authority on bobsleigh didn't know much about the sport.

"The only thing I knew about bobsleigh when I started,'' said Flowers, "was the movie 'Cool Runnings.'''

Flowers' coolest run came Wednesday when she pushed Bakken's sled to the fastest start of the competition and the pair snaked through the course in the best combined time.

That made Flowers the first black athlete from any country to win winter gold.

It also put her at the front of a new Olympic movement in this country, a welcome shift toward diversity representative of the entire population that is occurring at these Games.

Usually, the Winter Olympics are whiter than the Country Music Awards. But this is becoming the year the U.S. contingent finally gets some color in its cheeks.

Within hours of Flowers' victory Wednesday, Derek Parra became the first Mexican-American gold-medal winner. The U.S. has also had a medal performance from speed skater Jennifer Rodriguez, who is of Cuban descent, while ice dancer Naomi Lang was the first Native American to qualify for the Winter Games.

And all this is a year when Lloyd Ward became the first black man to head the USOC.

Now, there's a real America's Team.

"First of all, it's an honor to be an Olympian and to represent your country no matter what color you are,'' Flowers said Thursday. "But to be the first African-American to win a gold medal is really special. Hopefully, this will set the stage and open the door for other kids to try. Maybe another little African-American girl is going to want to become a figure skater or a bobsledder because Vonetta did it.''

And maybe that should be noted as much on the calendar as the medal count.

Officially, Pioneers Day in Utah isn't until July 24. But Wednesday, another form of that local holiday was celebrated in a little skiing suburb just North of Salt Lake, where black faces are usually about as common as shorts on the slopes. And in a sport that its newest champion is still getting to know.

"My dream was never to be a bobsledder,'' Flowers said four months before the Olympics. "But as I look back on my athletic career, what I was designed to do was bobsleigh. All the volleyball, basketball and track and field was putting me in position for this opportunity.''

Wednesday she said it another way:

"God had a different plan for me.''

Flowers underscored a new Olympic plan in America Wednesday when she introduced a new look to the Winter Games.

And it's one that should show anyone of any background watching the Games this week what is possible now.

Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.



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