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Twenty years after historic gold, Vonetta Flowers continues to inspire

Twenty years after historic gold, Vonetta Flowers continues to inspire
Posted at 1:48 PM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 20:17:25-05

It has been 20 years since the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, brought the Winter Olympics into the new millennium. Salt Lake marked the first United States-hosted Winter Games since Lake Placid, New York, in 1980. It served as a major moment of unity just five months after the September 11 attacks altered the national psyche. It also welcomed women into the bobsled world. 

Of course, Salt Lake 2002 offered plenty of memorable, inspiring, and historic athletic performances. Perhaps the most significant: Americans Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers sped to gold in the debut of bobsled’s two-woman event. The victory made Flowers the first Black athlete from any country to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. 

Flowers originally started out as a track and field athlete at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She focused on qualifying for the 100-meter event at the 1996 Atlanta Games, but couldn’t earn a spot. Flowers then worked even harder to compete in long jump at the 2000 Sydney Games, but again, didn’t make the team.

Flowers was crushed: Going to the Olympics "was a dream of mine since I was 9 years old," she told NBCOlympics.com.

SEE MORE: Bobsled 101: Olympic History

"My first track coach put that image out there for me, that I could be the next Jackie Joyner-Kersee, before I even knew who she was," Flowers said. The back-to-back rejections stung: "I was hurt."

Not long after she missed the 2000 Sydney Olympics, however, her husband spotted a flyer for USA Bobsled and suggested it could be another opportunity to compete in the Games. "It literally changed our lives," Flowers said. "The only thing I knew about bobsled was Cool Runnings … I saw it as God was closing one door, and opening another."

Many of the strengths Flowers gained through running translated to bobsled. Recruiters first tested her on five different criteria, including speed and strength. She then went through a series of trials and combines around the world, learning how to push a bobsled and slide down a track. Soon, she began working with her first partner, Bonny Warner – a former luge athlete who had been the torchbearer at Lake Placid 1980. 

After just one year, Flowers ranked second in the United States and third in the world. Not long after, she joined the 2002 Olympic team – and slid to victory.   

"It definitely felt like I was dreaming," Flowers said of her bobsled victory at the Games. The first 24 hours were especially surreal, as she waited for the medal ceremony the following night. "Standing on the podium, I couldn’t control my emotions, I was just so happy … I felt like I was winning not only for myself, but also for my country. It was a very, very proud moment."

Salt Lake 2002 marked the first time any women’s event existed for bobsled. Twenty years later, the 2022 Winter Olympics have added a second discipline: monobob. While these Games have enjoyed greater diversity across all sports – the United States’ 224-athlete roster includes 108 women – the American bobsled team is especially diverse. Three of the four athletes in the women's field are Black.

Flowers acknowledges the progress. She credits Elana Meyers Taylor – who recently won monobob silver – with attracting new faces to the sport. 

"She’s become the face of bobsled for the women, and I’m so proud of her," Flowers said. "She’s inspired that next generation. Hopefully, there will be more diversity in all the sports, not only bobsled. There are a lot of great athletes out there. Hopefully, seeing people that look like them on TV, competing at such a high level, will inspire others to give this a try."

SEE MORE: Monobob: Meyers Taylor jumps fourth to silver in final runs

Meyers Taylor spoke to NBCOlympics.com just days before the 2022 Winter Games began. When asked what it meant to her to watch Flowers win gold in 2002, the now-four-time Olympian offered effusive praise.  

"Vonetta’s the reason I came out to bobsled," she said. "Seeing somebody who looked like me, who came from another sport, transferred into bobsled, and had success is what put the idea in my head that I could figure it out. I definitely wouldn’t be here without her."

Meyers Taylor credited Flowers with inspiring the entire U.S. bobsled team: "Her and Jill Bakken started the U.S. tradition of winning medals at every Games," she said, casually failing to mention that she had personally helped carry that streak for the past 12 years. 

The Olympians initially met at Vancouver 2010, when Flowers acted as then-Vice President Joe Biden’s personal envoy at the Games. At the time, the two discussed bobsledding, and what it meant to be a person of color in a sport that had lacked diversity for so long. But the Flowers-Meyers Taylor bond developed and deepened over the years, especially after Nico Meyers Taylor was born a month before the pandemic.

Once again, Meyers Taylor took inspiration from Flowers – but for a different reason. The same year she won gold, Flowers gave birth to twins. After a short break, Flowers continued to compete around the world. She even returned to the Olympics at Torino 2006, finishing sixth with partner Jean Prahm.    

Vonetta Flowers
Vonneta Flowers competes with partner Jean Prahm at the Torino 2006 Olympics.
Getty Images

"She even started that legacy," said Meyers Taylor, who is one of just two mothers competing for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

Reflecting on her own experience as a mother at the Games, Flowers said she hoped the pressures to be a "superwoman" didn’t weigh Meyers Taylor down. Somehow, "you find a way to get it all done … [Meyers Taylor] represents all of the working moms who pull double duty. Let’s be honest: There’s not many moms who can say the make a living by running on ice."

As her accomplishments stand tall in sports history, Flowers hopes that her story will continue inspiring others to not give up on their dreams. She especially wants to motivate people from humble backgrounds. 

"During my quest to be an Olympian, I struggled with doubt, major disappointment, and fear of failure. But those things didn’t paralyze me from dreaming," Flowers said. The gold medalist emphasized that a strong work ethic is key to success: "Based on where I grew up, I needed a better tomorrow, so I out-worked myself each day."

Being part of a team also fueled Flowers to perform her very best, as she wanted to make her coaches and fellow athletes proud. But there was one person whose opinion mattered above all others. 

"Most importantly, I didn’t want to disappoint my mom," Flowers said. "When I arrived home after my competitions, I’d walk in the door and my mom would ask me one question: 'Did you win?' Those words stuck with me, and drove me to want to always answer my mom proudly by saying 'Yes.'"

Flowers' hard work paid off in more ways than just becoming an Olympian, or even winning a gold medal. Her mother attended Salt Lake 2002. 

"She saw for herself what I had been training for my whole life," Flowers said.

SEE MORE: Elana Meyers Taylor is on a mission at 2022 Winter Olympics