3/5/2003 - The Other Bobsled Girls

The Other Bobsled Girls
By Tammi Wark

Close insiders call them Jill Steel and Vonetta Ice after the sliding sport web site SteelandIce.com. And by the end of Tuesdayís womenís bobsled debut, everyone will have that hard and fast image of Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers etched in their memories. You havenít heard much about them because these two sliders are so squeaky clean and void of controversy that they have been relegated to the sidelines of Olympic coverage. They deserve to be at the forefront.

Bakken is an original member of the womenís national team from 1994. She was 17 when she took her first trip down the Mt. Hovenberg track in Lake Placid. She was 20 when she drove to both gold and silver medals at Park Cityís inaugural world cup races in December 1997. She is 25 now and going to be one of the first Americanís to compete for an Olympic medal in a sport she helped grow. Bakken always meets people with a warm smile and an unpretentious demeanor. This Pacific Northwest native, former soccer player and ski racer, is your next-door neighbor.

Flowers is a track coach at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, a woman dedicated to her family, her community, and her track athletes. She came to bobsled by way of a track competition in California, an opportunistically placed flyer, and a tryout held by driver Bonny Warner in 2000. Flowers is so strong and fast, she helped take Warner to six top-two finishes in the 2000-01 season, all the others were in the top ten. Flowers is also the only African American competing for the United States in womenís bobsled this Olympics.

But donít let their easy smiles and laid back public personas fool you - these women are fierce competitors. Bakken and Flowers have had the luxury of being in the background of all the chaos the sport has wrought over the last few months. While teammates vied for magazine covers and sponsor dollars, they have simply worked hard to become the best athletes possible.

Both women have a lot to offer the public - especially young people who are inspired to become Olympians. They hope to give people a reason to relate to their sport, to show that you donít have to grow up in a winter town to participate in winter sports. Flowers says that her whole life as a track athlete was preparing her for this challenge - pushing a 400-pound sled for fifty meters in under five and a half seconds. Bakken was entering ski races as a toddler and has always sought bigger and more demanding obstacles in her athletic quests. Even while suffering a knee injury and dropping behind teammate Racine for the USA I position on the world cup the last couple seasons, Bakken has always held her cool. "I have a focus that improves each time I hit the ice, Iím tackling one goal at a time," she said of her quest.

Flowers has the added benefit of strength and speed coaching from her husband Johnny. He is a solid source of support and encouragement for her Olympic dreams. He has helped guide her through tough decisions and knew what to do to keep her focused on the ultimate goal - an Olympic medal. "Iíve been in athletics for so many years," said Flowers, "I wanted to go for track and field, but God had other plans for me. It is still a little shocking, standing out in the cold sometimes. But I love this sport, I really do."

Hard work, a positive outlook and deft skills on the steering ropes have earned Bakken not only a stellar reputation in the sport, but more friends and supporters than she can count. Coaches and athletes from other countries often say how it would be great to see Bakken medal, sheís got "the touch." Together, Bakken and Flowers have powerful start times too. At the Olympic trials, they either beat or tied Jean Racine and Gea Johnson at the start. But what ultimately matters is who gets to the bottom fastest. Flowers says the key for the upcoming competition is staying relaxed and focused and the team is on target with those goals.

Bakken and Flowers even joke about the "what ifs." In one scenario, reporters write "Jean came in second, Bonny didnít make it to the Olympics, oh and by the way, the other girls won." This team wants respect for their hard work and their athleticism, but they arenít willing to compromise it with dishing dirt or stirring up trouble. "We plan on breaking track records," said Flowers. "We have to put everything together that day, whomever does it best goes to the podium." Steel and Ice, they might just be the best kept secret of the Salt Lake City Olympics. Watch Tuesday and decide for yourself. It will be an exciting race.

For more information on Jill Bakken, go to www.SteelandIce.com; for Vonetta Flowers go to www.VonettaFlowers.com.

Tammi Wark is the author of the upcoming book Driving Forces: Inside the First U.S. Womenís Olympic Bobsled Team. Go to www.IceBeams.com.

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