Unlikely Story in Alabama
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.
Inspired by Her Childhood Coach
In the summer of 1982, Coach DeWitt Thomas arrived at Jonesboro Elementary School with one goal in mind. He went there to recruit the fastest boys and girls for the Marvel City Striders (currently Alabama Striders). All of the students lined up in the middle of the parking lot and raced towards the finish line. In order to save time, Coach Thomas only recorded the 1st initial and the last name on his time sheet. Once this list was compiled, he ranked each child according to his or her time and called the parents, hoping they would allow their son or daughter to compete on his track team.
According to the time sheet, V. Jeffery recorded the fastest time. Coach Thomas thought that the little boy's name might have been Victor or Vincent. It never crossed his mind that V. Jeffery was a girl. Coach Thomas was very surprised and excited to discover that V. Jeffery was 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.
She Became the First
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.
Vonetta also hold 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!
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. The only thing Vonetta and Johnny knew about bobsledding was what they learned from the movie, "Cool Runnings." Johnny had also been an outstanding Track and Field athlete, even so, their chances seemed so slim that the idea of them making the team became more and more amusing. Regardless, Vonetta really was not interested. She was still dealing with the reality that she would not live out her lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics. After several hours of joking back and forth, however, she agreed to accompany Johnny as he tried out for the team. Shortly after the competition started, Johnny pulled his hamstring, and Vonetta agreed to live out his dream by completing the six-item test. That unselfish act would quickly change their lives.
Less than 2 months after stepping in for Johnny, Vonetta was competing for the U.S. in bobsled, traveling to foreign countries and eating foods the names of which she couldn't even pronounce. Vonetta's Track and Field background was an advantage in bobsled, and she quickly became the #1 brake woman in the U.S. By the end of her rookie season, Vonetta and her former teammate, Bonny Warner, were ranked 2nd in the US and 3rd 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 1st medal for a U.S. bobsled team in 46 years!