Vonetta Flowers: A heart of gold
The Olympic champion US bobsledder competes Tuesday. She shared the difficult steps along the way with family.
CESANA, ITALY — Two things happened to Vonetta Flowers after the 2002 Olympics - one expected, and one a total surprise.
Even before the Salt Lake Games, when Flowers pushed her bobsled - and herself - into history, becoming the first-ever black champion at the Winter Olympics, she decided that she wanted to start a family once the Games were over. Sure enough, she was pregnant with twins a week after closing ceremonies.
Yet the cravings that she had in the following months were not for pickles and peanut butter, but for push times and knuckle-numbing speed. Tuesday, the former sprinter from Alabama is again at the Olympics, looking to medal in the sport she once likened to being thrown down a mountain in a trash can.
Even now, Flowers thanks God for "every good curve" - and there have been many twists in her life, both on the track and off.
There has been the premature birth of sons Jaden and Jorden, so small their hospital wristbands fit around her finger. There is the life lived every winter on the World Cup circuit - always with her husband and sons, often without sleep. And there is the hope that Jorden, who was born deaf, will one day be able to talk.
Yet as always, Flowers sees only blessings for what bobsled - and the past four years - have brought. And Tuesday's event is about sharing with her new family what she shared with the world in Salt Lake.
"It was an amazing feeling ... but I think I can have it again, because this time I can share it with my kids," she says. "I want to do well for my family."
From the moment she came back, that much was clear. She set one condition for returning to the team: "My family is coming with me." Like all decisions that come at a crossroads, it gets to her character - a hunger to compete, a love of family, and an unshakable faith.
It is not in her nature to be confrontational. At press conferences where journalists have the tendency to ask the same thing in 53 different ways, she has the unique habit of thanking the media for their questions. Asked what comes to mind when thinking about Flowers, the driver of her two-woman sled, Jean Prahm, responds: "She has a very good heart."
But when thinking about her as a teammate, a very different Flowers leaps forward: "She's a competitor," Prahm says.
During the past four years, Flowers has needed both qualities in abundance. Jaden and Jorden were born three months early. At birth, the smaller of the two weighed less than a tea kettle - 2 lbs., 8 oz. - and both needed to stay in the hospital for more than six weeks.
At five months, however, each had his own passport and was ready to live the life of a bobsledder. Since then, they have been to every World Cup event with her. "My husband [Johnny] and I do it," says Flowers. "We don't have a nanny."
Sometimes, they sit in the car and watch "Cool Runnings" - the movie about the Jamaican bobsled team - while Mom hurtles down the track. Other times the top of the track becomes a makeshift kindergarten. "One will sit in a box, and the other will push him around," says Flowers.
At the hotel, the Flowers family will stay at the opposite end from the rest of the team - so that the others can sleep. Or they'll send the twins to Prahm's room for quiet time. "I'm the babysitter," Prahm smiles.
On one hand, it is an enormous sacrifice to be making for a sport that Flowers never considered attempting. When the Alabamian pictured going to the Olympics, there was no snow in her moment of glory.
"My first track coach told me that I would be the next Jackie Joyner-Kersee," says Flowers, saying that the heptathlete had always been her idol. "So I was supposed to be taking a victory lap [after my medal], not standing in the freezing cold."
She still doesn't like the cold, and as in Salt Lake, she is not a medal favorite. But she loves the speed, and realizes that she has had a more profound impact on sport as the first black Winter Olympic gold medalist, than as a sprinter in the summer Games. Besides, she has never been one to question where her prayers lead her.
The only doctor in the world who performs the kind of surgery that she believes could help her son hear lives in Italy - where she brings her family every winter on the bobsled tour. The doctor waived his fee for the procedure, which was done in December, meaning Flowers and her husband only had to pay for the hospital stay and the device which lets Jorden hear - and those expenses were covered by a donation from insurance company Allianz, a sponsor of the bobsled tour.
"This is all part of God's plan," she says. "It might be one reason I was put in the sport."
Jorden can now hear, and instead of merely mouthing words, as he did before the device was turned on last month, he is trying to speak. "He's such a cute boy and so full of life, he's just ready to start talking," says Prahm.
For the first time since they were born, though, the twins are not here with Flowers. After a late-night practice run, Flowers takes a deep breath as if bracing herself, and says, only half-joking, "We're not talking about that."
For a woman who still cries when talking about her gold medal, being away from her sons for the first time is tougher than any push time. But she and Johnny decided that the Olympics were too hectic to bring them.
Perhaps she'll have another chance in Vancouver. She hasn't ruled out coming back in 2012 as a driver. Right now as a push athlete, she laughs, "My job is about five seconds." If she does come back, she could add to her sled a single bumper sticker: "God is my copilot."