Olympic bobsledder, gold medalist has Troy ties

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Features Editor

Every time his son brought a new girl friend around, the Rev. Joseph Flowers,

pastor of New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Troy, would whisper, "Johnny, where’s Vonetta?"

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There was "just something about Vonetta."

Today, there is something very special about Vonetta Flowers and millions of people, other than her father-in-law, realize it.

Flowers is an Olympic gold medalist.

And who would have expected that an African American girl from Alabama would come home from the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with a gold medal in, of all things, bobsledding?

Not Joseph Flowers and not even Vonetta Flowers until 18 months ago, and probably then it was only a fleeting thought.

"Vonetta had her sights on the summer Olympics in the long jump," her father-in-law said. "She came in 12th at the 2000 Olympic track and field trials and saw her hopes fade."

Vonetta Flowers, who is assistant track coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, wasn’t ready to give up her dream of an Olympic medal. So, when she saw a flyer for the USA Bobsled team

tryout conducted by Bonny Warner, as a lark, she and her husband decided to try out.

Johnny Flowers pulled a hamstring during the tryouts and was out of contention, but Vonetta’s performance "topped them all."

"They told her they would be in contact with her in a couple of weeks, but she didn’t hear anything for three weeks," Joseph Flowers said. "Then, they called and asked her if she would be willing to go to Europe to

train. Of course, she said, yes."

While the world waited for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Vonetta Flowers was making her bid to be "on track" there as a brakeman on a USA bobsled.

With only two weeks training on how to push a bobsled, Vonetta and her teammate Bonny Warner broke the world start record in October 2000 at Park City, Utah and later in the season

won four World Cup medals and finished the year ranked third in the world.

Not bad, but was it good enough?

"I’m sure Vonetta and Johnny knew before, but they didn’t call us until Christmas day to tell us that Vonetta would be competing in the Winter Olympics," Joseph Flowers said. "I can’t tell you how excited we were. It was a dream come true."

Flowers is a fisher of men, but he also likes to put a cork in the water.

"I like to fish," he said, with a smile, "but Mary is the real sports enthusiast. She was on cloud nine. I saw how excited she was and I knew how much she wanted to be in Salt Lake to see Vonetta compete. I decided I was going to take her and let her see."

What Joseph and Mary Flowers would see was little less than a miracle on ice.

Although the USA had not won an Olympic medal in bobsled since 1956, hopes were high for a top finish in the women’s bobsled event. But, the hopes were on Jean Racine and her new brakewoman, Gea Johnson.

When the race was on, however it was a German team Prokoff and Holzmer who broke the track push record with a time of 5.32 seconds. Vonetta Flowers was equal to the challenge. She helped Jill Bakken propel USA-2 to a 5.31 second record start.

In their second run, Prokoff and Holzmer broke the start record again and finished in 48.96 seconds, putting the pressure of Bakken and Flowers.

The USA-2 team completed their second run in 48.95 seconds. 0.30 ahead of Prokoff and Holzmer and set off a wild celebration at the finish line.

Joseph Flowers was less than 3 feet from the finish line and screamed and hollered with the other 15,000 fans.

"We could see the race on television monitors and we knew they had a chance," Mary Flowers said. "We were screaming. It was very emotional and I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was awesome."

Johnny Flowers had been at the top of the track with is wife and his mother said she doesn’t know how he got to the finish line, but he was there celebrating with his wife.

"He was very emotional and had to walk away and compose himself and then walk back," his dad said. "That moment had to be one of the most exciting of my life. I just can’t describe it."

The first thing Flowers said to his daughter-in-law was "Now, that you’re an Olympic gold medalist, may I have your autograph?

"She said, "Why no, you can have a hug," Flowers said.

That night, Feb. 19, Joseph Flowers didn’t have to ask his son, ‘Johnny, where’s Vonetta?’

She was on the podium with a gold medal around her neck and tears of joy streaming down her face. She was an Olympic champion and all the world could see.