- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) The U.S. bobsled team no one knew about certainly made a name for itself and history.
Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers stunned the field last night, winning the gold medal in the inaugural women's Olympic bobsled race and breaking a 46-year drought in the sport for the United States.
The other U.S. team of Jean Racine and Gea Johnson had been favored to contend for a medal and overshadowed Bakken and Flowers leading up to the race.
In the end, though, it was the USA-2 team that had the fastest combined time in the two runs, 1 minute, 37.76 seconds. Flowers, the team's brakewoman and a former track star at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, became the first black athlete to win a Winter Olympic gold medal.
"I'm so happy. I'm truly blessed," said Flowers, who never stopped crying in the interview room afterward. "My goal was to make the Summer Olympics, but God had a different plan."
Sandra Prokoff and Ulrike Holzner took silver in Germany-1 in 1:38.06. Susi Erdmann and Nicole Herschmann, also of Germany, won the bronze in 1:38.29.
Racine and brakewoman Johnson, who had been bothered by a sore hamstring, finished fifth in 1:38.73.
"America was on the podium today, and that was the goal," said a dejected Racine, in tears as Bakken slid past to victory. "We didn't win, but America did."
Racine was supposed to be America's hope, she but ran into problems.
After dominating the World Cup tour for two years with brakewoman Jen Davidson, her best friend, Racine suddenly was unable to win. In December, she replaced her with Johnson, a former heptathlete from Arizona with a shaky past.
Johnson once served a four-year suspension after testing positive for anabolic steroids.
The German teams with the big drivers Erdmann is 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds, and Prokoff is 5-11 and 175 were also favored. Their heft meant they would be pushing lighter sleds, a distinct advantage on a track that demands a powerful push.
And it appeared that would be the case as Prokoff and Holzner broke the track push record on their first run with a time of 5.32 seconds. Undaunted, Flowers helped propel USA-2 to a 5.31-second start record.
That was only slightly better than Prokoff, but Bakken is a skilled driver with hundreds of runs on the Olympic track in the city where she lives. She avoided the mistakes that Prokoff made on the lower portion of the 16-turn course and gained a significant lead of 0.29 seconds.
"I didn't want to count anyone out," Bakken said. "I knew we had a good lead, but it didn't matter. Any one of the other teams could have had a great run."
After the first run, the Americans had a premature celebration, with big hugs and big smiles. Two coaches joined in and scores of fans, including Bakken's mother, screamed encouragement.
In their second run, Prokoff and Holzner broke the start record again and finished in a solid 48.96 seconds, putting the pressure on Bakken and Flowers.
Tension built in the final moments before their second run, the last of the night.
"I was nervous, but I always am," Bakken said. "If I'm not, then we're in trouble."
As they stood behind their sled ready to begin their furious push to start the race, Bakken and Flowers pounded each other's fists as if to say, "Let's win this."
They did, sliding home in 48.95 seconds, 0.30 ahead of Prokoff and Holzner. The victory set off a wild celebration at the finish line as the capacity crowd of 15,000 roared.
"I don't see very well," Bakken said. "I didn't know we had won until we got close to the timing clock. It was amazing."
The Germans had developed the strongest start, and the results were stunning. Between them, Prokoff and Erdmann won every World Cup race in the 2001-02 season, with Erdmann taking the overall title.
The powerful Johnson was expected to give Racine the edge she was lacking at the start, but the chronic hamstring problem flared up in Johnson's left leg in the days leading up to the race and hampered their start. Only two sleds in the field of 15 had worse starts.
Meanwhile, Bakken, who finished sixth in the World Cup, remained in the shadows while Racine was swarmed by the media as the Olympics approached. Bakken was able to train hard and avoid the pressure, since nobody had expected her to win.


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