First-Ever African American Athlete to Win a Winter Olympics Gold Medal
On February 19, 2002, people in Alabama were glued to their TV’s, curious to see how the state’s only bobsledder would perform against the rest of the world. In less than 1 minute 48 seconds, tears of joy began to flow, because the young woman from Birmingham, Alabama who dared to try an untraditional sport had left her permanent foot prints in the snow by becoming the 1st person of African descent to win a Gold Medal in the Winter Olympics. People from all over the world soon became familiar with the story of how a little girl’s dream of competing in the Summer Olympics led her to tryout for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Bobsled Team. In only 18 months after answering a help wanted ad, she would win the inaugural bobsled event and shatter the racial barrier in the process. Many were shocked to discover the struggles she encountered, others were encouraged by the sacrifices she made and all were inspired by her determination to pursue a life long dream of becoming an Olympian. Vonetta holds the honor of being the 1st person of African descent (male or female) – – from any country – to win a GOLD medal in the Winter Olympics!
In the summer of 1982, Coach DeWitt Thomas arrived at Jonesboro Elementary School with one goal: to find the fastest and most talented athletes for track and field. That’s where he discovered Vonetta Jeffery. That summer, V. Jeffery (who he originally thought was a boy) had proved she was a force to be reckoned with, a young girl who was extremely talented and easily motivated. Coach Thomas describes Vonetta as “one in a million” and smiles each time he tells the story about the little girl with exceptional God given talent and a heart of gold. Coach Thomas truly believed that Vonetta would one day compete in the Olympics, but, he had no idea that the Olympic track where history would be made would be covered with ice and snow.
For the next 10 years, Coach Thomas watched a shy young girl develop into a very determined young lady. During that time, she would win almost every race that she entered.
Education and Experience
In 1992 Vonetta graduated from P.D. Jackson Olin High School, where she participated in track and field, volleyball and basketball. Vonetta became the 1st in her family to attend college, when she accepted a Track and Field scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 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 1st Seven-Time All-American.
The Road to Gold
In both 1996 and 2000, Vonetta qualified for the Olympic Trials, held in Atlanta, Georgia and Sacramento, California, respectively. At the 1996 trials, she competed in the 100 meter dash and the long jump but was unsuccessful in her quest to earn a spot on the team. Vonetta spent the next four years focusing all of her energy on training for an opportunity to compete at the 2000 Olympics in the long jump. She hoped to have an outstanding performance at the 2000 Olympic Trials, but just a few months before the trials began, Vonetta found herself lying on a hospital bed getting ready for her 5th surgery in 8 years. Against all odds, she believed in herself and decided to lace up her spikes one last time, but it wasn’t meant to be. After a disappointing performance at the 2000 trials, Vonetta felt it was time to retire from Track and Field, with hopes of starting a family.
Two days after the 2000 Olympic Trials, Vonetta’s husband, Johnny, spotted a flyer urging Track and Field athletes to tryout for the U.S. bobsled team. Flowers was introduced to bobsledding by responding to a want ad placed by Bonny Warner. Warner was looking for a track athlete to provide speed and power for fast starts. With only two weeks of training on how to push a bobsled, Flowers and Warner broke the world start record in October 2000, at Park City, Utah. In 2002, over 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 1st medal for a U.S. bobsled team in 46 years!
Her book Running On Ice: The Overcoming Faith of Vonetta Flowers tells the story of how she went from a track and field athlete to an Olympic gold medalist.
Awards and Distinctions
People magazine selected her for 2002’s “50 Most Beautiful People.” She is a part of the 2002 USOC Team of the Year, along with Bakken and was the recipient of the 2002 US Olympic Spirit Award. She and Bakken were selected to carry the Olympic flag into 2002 Closing Ceremonies. She competed in the 2006 Olympics, 2010 Olympics, and 2014 Olympics. She coaches track and field at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she and husband, Johnny Flowers, were star track athletes.
The Push to Win
This speech focuses on Vonetta’s childhood and the influences that impacted her to become a Gold medalist. It tells the story of how all of us have a desire to be great in life and it parallels the impact that mentors have in every aspect of development. In the end you realize that in order to be successful that sometimes all you need to do is “Push to Win”.
My Mom’s Only Question: Did You Win?
Vonetta’s number one fan was her mom but she hardly ever watched her compete. Instead she spent her “free time” working and raising her 3 brothers. Her childhood coach picked her up for practice, served as a father figure and mentored her from a child to an Olympic Champion. Although she was not there physically as many helicopter parents watching their talented child win medals and trophies so waited patiently at home for her daughter to return. As soon as she walked through the door, there was only one question that she’d ask, “Did You Win”? This question motivated her to the biggest win in sports history.
When snow falls, Sometimes you have to be reminded that your’e a Black _______.
In life most people don’t walk around thinking that they’re a “color”. We interact, spend time with and love people that we have similar interest with. But there are times when we are reminded and viewed differently based on the color of our skin. Vonetta highlights her desire to be an Olympic Champion, but she never once thought about being a Black Olympian. She just wanted to compete at the highest level. Ironically, her victory catapulted her in a new stratosphere because she became the first black athlete (from any nation) to win a Gold Medal in the Winter Olympics. The story also highlights the good and bad times of others that look like her who have been singled out during challenging times and they are reminded that they are “black”.
If you can Walk by Faith, You CAN run on Ice!
Vonetta did not grow up attending church as a child. But as she entered adulthood, she developed a deeper relationship with God and the church became a huge part of who she was. A few months after 9/11 she was scheduled to attend bobsled training in Calgary as this was merely months away from the 2002 Winter Olympics. But, the fear of flying was paralyzing. Meanwhile her pastor, Mike Moore, was teaching a series entitled “Fear or Faith”. His teachings ultimately led her to getting on a plane, fighting her fears and Running on Ice.