Birmingham native Vonetta Jeffery Flowers (1973- ) is the first African American to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. The former University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) college track and field star competed in two-woman bobsled in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, winning gold in the very first women’s Olympic competition in the sport. Four years later, Flowers competed again in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, taking sixth place. Flowers was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
Vonetta Flowers Vonetta Jeffery was born on October 29, 1973, in Birmingham, to Jimmie Jeffery, director of maintenance for a trucking company, and Bobbie Jeffery, a hotel maid. She first came to the attention of the track and field world while attending Joneseboro Elementary School when she competed with the local municipal Marvel City Striders track and field club. She attended P. D. Jackson Olin High School, where she excelled at track and field, volleyball, and basketball. During her senior year, she placed first in four track and field events in the Alabama State Championships. After graduating in 1992, she attended UAB on a track and field scholarship. While there, she met future husband Johnny Flowers, also a track and field competitor. By the time of her graduation in 1996, she had amassed 35 conference titles, and set her sights on earning a spot on the U.S.A. Track and Field Team and competing in the Summer Olympics.
Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers In June 1996, Flowers qualified to compete in the 100-meter dash and the long jump in the Olympic Trials in Atlanta, Georgia, but failed to earn a spot. She continued training with the aim of qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Trials, but injuries and subsequent surgeries kept her from competing at top form. Flowers then intended to retire from competition, but her husband learned that the U.S. Bobsled Olympic Team was recruiting track stars as brakespeople to help push the sled behind the pilot. The startoff is a significant part of achieving a fast time in bobsled, and track and field athletes provide the power and speed for that portion of the run. He convinced her to join him in trying out for the men’s and women’s teams, although she did not agree to try out initially. When Johnny Flowers injured a hamstring and became unable to try out for the men’s team, she agreed to and earned a spot on the women’s team.
Gold-Medal Run Flowers was paired with pilot Bonny Warner, and the pair quickly rose to among the top-ranked teams in the world. In the 2002 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee added a women’s event to bobsledding, the first time the sport had added a new Olympic event in 70 years. The U.S. team partnered Flowers with pilot Jill Bakken, a former soccer player for Oregon State University and an Oregon native. After four heats, the pair bested the two highly ranked German women’s teams, taking gold with a time of 1:37.76, and making Flowers the first African America to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. Flowers and Bakken were honored with carrying the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies. Back in Birmingham, Flowers was awarded the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Live the Dream” Award at Bartow Arena and given the key to the city by Mayor Bernard Kincaid.
After the Olympics, Flowers gave birth to twins, but she soon resumed training. In 2004, she and pilot Jean Racine (later Prahm) of Michigan took the bronze medal in the Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing World Championships in Königssee, Germany, falling third behind the two German women’s teams. In February 2005, she published a memoir recounting her rise to sports fame and her faith: Running on Ice: The Overcoming Faith of Vonetta Flowers. The following year, Flowers and Prahm competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, but came in sixth, well out of medal contention. Flowers retired from competition following this result.
Flowers returned to Birmingham and for many years worked as an assistant track and field coach for UAB. After her retirement, she joined former University of Alabama football players Brodie Croyle and DeMeco Ryans in opening D1, a private coaching and training facility established in Birmingham in 2010. Flowers also conducts training sessions in track and field for the organization.