Vonetta Flowers: Olympic Golden Girl on Ice
By The 700 Club
-- Early Olympic Dreams
It is truly a feat that Vonetta Flowers switched sports from track and field to bobsledding and won an Olympic gold medal her first time out. Usually, it is career suicide for an athlete to make such a drastic change.
In 1982 at the age of 9, Vonetta was recruited for her elementary school track team. Coach DeWitt Thomas arrived at Jonesboro Elementary School to enlist the fastest boys and girls for the Marvel City Striders (currently Alabama Striders). All of the students lined up in the middle of the parking lot and raced toward the finish line. In order to save time, Coach Thomas only recorded the first initial and the last name on his time sheet. According to the time sheet, V. Jeffery (Jeffery being Vonetta's maiden name) recorded the fastest time, which Coach Thomas thought was a little boy. He was very surprised and delighted to find out that V. Jeffery was a girl, whom he describes as a "one in a million" little girl with exceptional God-given talent and a heart of gold. He truly believed that Vonetta would one day compete in the Olympics.
For the next 10 years, Coach Thomas watched a shy, young girl develop into a very determined young lady. During that time, she won almost every race that she entered. She says the most important things Coach Thomas taught her were to never give up and that hard work pays off.
In 1992 Vonetta graduated from P.D. Jackson Olin High School in Alabama, where she participated in track and field, volleyball and basketball. Vonetta became the 1st in her family to attend college, when she accepted a track and field scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When Vonetta graduated, she was one of the university's most decorated athletes, with 35 conference titles and victories in the Penn Relays and The Olympic Festival, and its 1st Seven-Time All-American.
Going for the Gold
In both 1996 and 2000, Vonetta qualified for the Olympic Trials, held in Atlanta, Ga., and Sacramento, Calif., respectively. At the 1996 trials, she competed in the 100-meter dash and the long jump but was unsuccessful in her quest to earn a spot on the team.
During the next four years, Vonetta focused all of her energy on training for an opportunity to compete at the 2000 Olympics in the long jump. She hoped to have an outstanding performance at the 2000 Olympic Trials; however, a few months before the trials began, Vonetta found herself lying on a hospital bed getting ready for her fifth surgery -- this time on her ankle -- in eight years. Against all odds, she believed she would make it, but it wasn't meant to be.
After a disappointing performance at the 2000 trials, Vonetta felt it was time to retire from track and field, and hoped to start a family with her husband, Johnny. Two days after the 2000 Olympic Trials, Johnny spotted a flyer urging track and field athletes to try out for the U.S. bobsled team. Vonetta and Johnny only knew about bobsledding from the movie Cool Runnings.
In Olympic competition for bobsledding, there are two-man and four-man races with 1,300 meter (.80 mile) tracks. The sleds can weigh a maximum of 390 kilograms (860 pounds) for a two-man and 630 kilograms (1,389 pounds) for a four-man. They reach speeds of 80-90 mph, with 4 G-forces in the curves, depending on the track. Like tires on a stock car, a variety of sets of runners are needed for different track configurations, ice, and weather conditions.
There are two types of athletes in bobsled: drivers and pushers. The drivers steer the sled and are the leaders of their team. They need quick reactions and great hand-eye coordination. The pushers are those athletes who push the sled fast at the start. Push athletes are generally recruited from sports like football and track. At the start, the athletes run on ice using special shoes made only by Adidas with 500 tiny spikes under the ball of the foot. The athlete in the back of the sled is called the brakeman. He engages a brake (a metal claw that digs into the ice) after the sled crosses the finish line.
Vonetta's husband, Johnny, had also succeeded as a track and field athlete, but Vonetta's and Johnny's chances of making the bobsledding team were very slim and somewhat amusing. Vonetta really was not interested, since she was still dealing with the disappointment of not living out her lifelong dream of competing in the Summer Olympics. She finally agreed to accompany Johnny as he tried out for the team. Shortly after the competition started, Johnny pulled his hamstring, and Vonetta agreed to live out his dream by trying out for the team.
Less than two months after stepping in for Johnny, Vonetta was competing for the United States in bobsled and traveling to foreign countries. Vonetta's track and field background was an advantage in bobsled. Soon she became the No. 1 brake woman in the United States.
In 2002 Vonetta and her partner, Jill Bakken, slid into history by winning the gold medal at the inaugural Women's Olympic bobsled event, which was the first medal for a U.S. bobsled team in 46 years. Vonetta became the first person of African-American descent to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.
Leap of Faith
Vonetta credits her faith in God, steadiness, and determination to help her realize her Olympic dreams. She says having God on her side makes it a stress-free place, and she's glad to give honor to Him.
Growing up, Vonetta went to church on holidays and didn't really have a deep relationship with God. As a college freshman, she started dating fellow track team member Johnny Flowers. Johnny, a pastor's son who had been in church all his life, started going back to church and urged Vonetta to go with him. Vonetta started going church with Johnny. They would visit churches all over Birmingham when their track team wasn't traveling. Johnny had found a church and encouraged her to join. Vonetta found another church that she started attending regularly (which is the church Johnny and she attend today). After a few months of attending this church, Vonetta accepted Jesus and contined to grow in faith.
The gold medal victory arrived after Vonetta overcame many obstacles in her path. Since the age of 9, she dreamed of winning an Olympic gold medal as a track star. Injuries kept her from achieving her goal but led her down a new path to competing in bobsledding. However, that dream looked as though it would be dashed too, when just a few months before the Winter Games she was cut from the U.S. Bobsled team. Vonetta says her faith in Christ kept her from giving up her dream. “Faith pulled me through. I still had a goal and I was going to keep trying. It was as though He was telling me, ‘Your day is coming.' ” Vonetta also relied on Johnny's reminders. “He would repeatedly tell me, ‘God has put you in this sport for a reason.' ” Vonetta continued to train as though she was still on the team. Two weeks later, she had not one, but two offers to return. “I began to realize maybe God does have me in this sport for a reason. Every time a door would close another door would open. I really began to develop a peace about it.”
It is a peace Vonetta says she did not have as a young track star. Without Christ in her life, her focus was completely on her athleticism. By the time of the Winter Olympics, Vonetta had a completely different outlook on competition. “As it says in 2 Timothy 1:7, ‘For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.” Vonetta continues, “I was living on faith not fear during the Olympics. I was able to relax, have a good time, and focus on what I had to do.”
It is this same faith that Vonetta says she and Johnny continue to rely upon as they embrace their new role as parents of twin sons. “Motherhood increased my faith even more. Johnny and I spent a lot of time in prayer for our sons prior to their birth. Prayer gave me peace.”
Vonetta has been blessed to be able to have her family with her while she is training and competing for various events. Johnny coaches her while her twin sons, Jaden Michael and Jorden Maddox, who were born August 30 2002, are close by.
Having twins came with some challenges. Both sons were born premature, and Jorden has suffered hearing loss. There has been a lot of tears shed, but Vonetta and Johnny have faith that Jorden will hear. Vonetta loves being a mom.
She is now training for the 2006 Olympic Bobsled team. Her advice is to find what you enjoy, work hard, and never give up.
Running on Ice
(New Hope Publishers, 2005)
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