SALT LAKE CITY — It is raining down in Birmingham, Ala., and the air is a balmy 69 degrees. Yolanda Cooper, a senior sprinter at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, excitedly picks up the phone. She spent the previous night with her teammates watching her track coach, Vonetta Flowers, become the first black gold medalist in the history of the Winter Olympics. Vonetta, the woman who clocks her lap times? Vonetta, who runs alongside her? That Vonetta? Won the Olympic bobsled?
“I’m definitely gonna try to make the Olympics like that!” Yolanda says. “I think I could be really fast on that thing!”
Have you ever seen a bobsled, she is asked?
“No,” she admits.
When Flowers, 28, jumped into that sled Tuesday night she took one last look at the world, then ducked her head. When she popped up, 44 seconds later, the world was a different place.
Since then, she has been mobbed, celebrated, photographed and interviewed by every TV program under the sun. She is twice as sought-after as her driver, Jill Bakken, who chose her to be on the team. The media, most of whom have never seen a bobsled race in person, hailed Flowers as a speed-suited Jackie Robinson, kicking the door in for future black Winter Olympians.
Well, let’s hope so. But take a moment to examine the route Flowers traveled to the gold medal. It’s a strange path that few will ever make. And after you hear it, you might not even want to.
“I’d never seen a bobsled before the year 2000,” Flowers admitted Wednesday.
“I didn’t like the cold. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t like being in it.”
Flowers laughed. Born and raised in Alabama, she had been a track athlete for years, with a dream of making the Olympics as a long jumper. At the 2000 track and field trials for Sydney, she finished 12th and was nursing her disappointment when her husband noticed a flyer on a wall.
“It was asking for versatile women track athletes who were interested in bobsled,” Flowers said.
Her husband, Johnny, called the note “a complete joke.” They laughed at the thought of telling their Alabama friends about a sled tryout. On a lark, they decided to go.
But to their surprise, Vonetta’s speed and strength showed enormous promise in the mini-skills test. The woman who posted the flyer, Bonny Warner, the former U.S. luge Olympian turned bobsledder, told Vonetta she might be good enough to win a medal in the 2002 Salt Lake Games.
That was less than two years away.
Vonetta stopped laughing.
The road to gold
Now, we need to stop the story for a moment to point out — especially to young people — that this is not how you normally make the Olympics. Most Olympians have been at their sport since childhood. It typically requires years and years of practice, especially to have any shot at a medal.
But the brakeman/pusher position in bobsled is a rare exception. It requires no more than a few seconds of an athlete’s effort — albeit a supreme effort
— and then the rest, in essence, is riding in the back.
This is the reason that everyone from Edwin Moses, a hurdler, to Herschel Walker, a football player, has given the position a try. If you have exceptional speed — as they and Vonetta do — you can leapfrog the normal years of sweat and tears and find yourself on an Olympic team.
OK, back to the tale. Vonetta saw her first sled when she accompanied Warner to Germany. She was amazed at how heavy it was. She practiced a few weeks at the art of pushing. One month later, she and Warner finished second in the U.S. national team trials.
Again. Stop. This doesn’t happen. Once in a blue moon, maybe — and mostly because bobsled was only starting for women in the 2002 Olympics. There were far fewer women doing bobsled than say, skiing, skating or even cross-country. This won’t be the case next time around. Another exception to the rules.
OK. Back to the story.
Always trading places
Remember how, Tuesday night, the angle the media regurgitated was how American Jean Racine, considered our best bobsled hope, had ditched her best friend and brakeman, Jen Davidson, when she thought Davidson was slipping? Racine, from Waterford, replaced her friend with Gea Johnson, another track star convert, and incurred the wrath of critics everywhere. How could you dump your partner? How could you turn on your friend? It’s a good thing you finished fifth and the “good guys” — Vonetta and Jill — won.
Well, once again, what NBC won’t bother to tell you — after all, why ruin a terrific story? — is that Vonetta and Jill had themselves each gone through a split with a partner.
Last fall, Warner began to waver on Flowers. She said she wanted her to fight for her job with another brakeman. Flowers said no. Take me or leave me.
“She left me,” Vonetta said.
What did you do?
“I went back to Alabama, to my job as assistant track coach at UAB. At that point, that was it for me and bobsled. It wasn’t my life. It didn’t mean that much. I wanted to start a family.”
This is four months ago.
Meanwhile, Jill, who had been racing with another partner and dear friend, Shauna Rohbock — stay with me here, this gets tricky — decided to do to her what Racine had done to Davidson.
“I called Shauna and told her I wanted her to do a ‘push-off’ with Vonetta,” Jill said. “It was a really hard decision, but it was something I felt I had to do.”
Vonetta, remember, had already stopped thinking about bobsled. But she started thinking again. She came north. She won the push-off, a best two-of-three contest.
She had a new partner.
And they made the Olympic team.
Her final decision
Still with me? Almost done. We’ve now established that the “evil” team of Racine and Johnson was pretty much doing what everyone in bobsled does, including Jill Bakken. (Although Bakken insists that she and her former partner are still good friends, and it was handled more delicately.)
Now, to the final twist. On Sunday in the Olympic Village, two days before their race, Vonetta got a phone call.
It was Jean Racine, admitting that her new partner, Johnson, was plagued by a balky hamstring.
“She asked me if I would leave Jill and compete with her,” Vonetta says.
This was two days before the race!
“I told her no. I was loyal to Jill. I thought we had a chance to win a gold medal.”
And they did.
And they made history.
Now, understand. It’s wonderful that Flowers and Bakken won, and Flowers is a gifted and humble athlete who is sincere when she says, “Maybe this will encourage other African-American kids to try to get into the Winter Olympics.”
But let’s make sure if they do, it’s the right way. That they get into development, put in the time and practice. The worst thing that could happen from Flowers’ inspiring moment is a rage of kids trying to make the Olympics four months before the games begin. Or figuring that the first time they try it they get a gold medal.
The fact is, this was a truly weird confluence of events — cut-throat partner switching, a new sport, maybe the one position in the Olympics that doesn’t require years and years of work.
And, by the way, a really good driver.
“Vonetta could be gone next year,” Bakken said Wednesday, stunning a roomful of reporters, “and I’ll have to find someone else. That’s just how the sport works.”
Someone asked Vonetta her reaction. She shrugged.
“I want to start a family,” she said.
Nearly 2,000 miles away, in balmy Birmingham, Yolanda, the college sprinter, is talking now about making the Olympics in bobsled, the way her coach did.
“The cold would be something I’d have to adapt to,” she says. “But I don’t know, it’s something to think about.”
Think hard. This story was a million wonderful things, but it was miles from normal.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).