On February 19, 2002, the entire city of Birmingham, Alabama, was glued to their televisions during the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games, watching hometown favorite Vonetta Flowers become the first-ever athlete of African descent to win a Winter Games gold. The bobsledder, to whom we awarded a grant from our Travel & Training Fund in 1998, also competed in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympic Games, finishing sixth. As accomplished as she was pioneering, Vonetta blazed the trail for current runners-turned-bobsledders like Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams, who are both set to compete in Sochi next week. In honor of February’s Black History Month, we tracked down Vonetta to find out what she has been up to since her history-making run in Salt Lake in 2002.
The Birmingham, Alabama, native began running track at nine-years-old, eventually earning a track scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The first person in her family to attend college, by the time she graduated, Vonetta 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 first seven-time All-American. In pursuit of her childhood dream of becoming a Summer Olympian, Vonetta competed in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Trials. She failed to make the USA Track & Field team both times.
Two days after the 2000 Trails, Vonetta’s husband saw a flyer encouraging Track & Field athletes to try out for the U.S. bobsled team. Through an unbelievable series of coincidences, less than two months after first stepping into a sled, Vonetta was competing for the U.S. national bobsled team, traveling to foreign countries and eating foods the names of which she couldn't even pronounce.
Vonetta's Track & Field background was a huge advantage in bobsled, and she quickly became the No. 1 brake woman in the U.S. By the end of her rookie season, Vonetta and her former teammate, Bonny Warner, were ranked second in the U.S. and third in the world. A year later Vonetta and her new 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 athlete of African descent, male or female, from any country, to win a Winter Games gold.
“That night I won was the night my dreams came true,” said Flowers, who has lived in Florida for the past five years with her husband and three young sons. “I always dreamed of going to the Olympics and representing my country and winning a gold medal, but when it actually happened, it was surreal, because I’d had that dream since I was nine.”
She competed at the 2006 Winter Olympics and finished a disappointing sixth, retiring from the sport soon after the Games.
Vonetta and her husband, Johnny, a former track teammate at the University of Alabama Birmingham, became the proud parents of twins sons, Jaden Michael and Jorden Maddox, on August 30, 2002. In February of 2005, Vonetta published her autobiography, “Running on Ice, the Overcoming Faith of Vonetta Flowers.” 2009 brought the Flowers another son, Jaxson, and in February of 2010, Vonetta was elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. She now spends her time shuttling her older boys to practices and games, speaking to schools and organizations, being the co-owner of a fitness facility in Alabama and being an advocate for the March of Dimes.