- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

In the last four years, U.S. bobsled brakeman Vonetta Flowers won a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, gave birth to twins and twice visited the White House. She made People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful list, chatted up Letterman, Leno and Rosie, wrote a book and met her idol, actor Samuel L. Jackson.

That was big, hobnobbing with Jackson at the ESPY awards.

“I went to the after party specifically to meet him,” said Flowers, who at the time was pregnant. “I sat by the door, waiting, waiting. I came up and introduced myself, and he was like, ‘I watched you!’ And he rubbed my belly and said, ‘Tell your kids I’m Uncle Sam.’”

It all seemed like a magical, crazy, never-ending dream: Former track star from the deep south, her summer Olympic hopes twice dashed by injury, becomes the first black athlete to achieve gold in the winter games. Fame and glory follow. Samuel L. Jackson rubs your belly.

But it was no dream. It was real.

It just wasn’t real life. That would come.

Flowers, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., got pregnant a week after the 2002 Olympics. The twins, boys named Jaden and Jorden, were delivered by Caesarean section three months premature in August. Jaden weighed 3 pounds, 8 ounces, Jorden a full pound lighter. “Very long and thin,” Flowers said during a media get-together in Colorado Springs a few months ago. Their armbands fit around her finger.

Jaden spent six weeks in the hospital, Jorden seven. It was a difficult time, even when Jaden came home, because it meant splitting the boys. “I cried because [Jaden] was leaving his little brother in the hospital,” Flowers said.

There was a reason for that. Jorden was born with a condition known as bilateral atresia. He was deaf. Doctors tried rigging a hearing aid, but it was no use. Vonetta and her husband, Johnny, who also works as her manager and trainer, learned sign language and taught Jorden to speak that way. It was the only way.

“At first we thought there would be some hearing,” Vonetta Flowers said yesterday in a telephone interview from Cortina, Italy, where she is preparing for the next World Cup competition. “We were talking to him and we thought he could hear our voices. It was devastating. We’ve had a lot of tough times, but we’ve prayed a lot.”

Because the condition causes deformity in the outer ears, Jorden Flowers already has had plastic surgery. On Tuesday in Verona, Italy, he will undergo surgery to restore his hearing. Microelectrodes will be imbedded in Jorden’s brainstem during the procedure — known as auditory brainstem implant — to receive sound signals from an outside transmitter.

The surgery is not permitted in the U.S. for patients younger than 12. And the surgeon, Vittorio Colletti, is the only doctor in the world who performs such operations on young children. Not only that, but the Flowers family is near Verona on business, anyway. Cortina is about 2 hours away.

“I don’t think all this stuff is happening haphazardly,” Johnny Flowers said.

Said Vonetta: “We could be racing anywhere at this time. To be in Italy is amazing.”

The Flowers, who have taken the kids everywhere since they were 5 months old, recently learned it should take just a month — not two as they were first told — for the hearing device to be activated after the healing completes. Originally, the device was scheduled to be activated just when Vonetta was scheduled to compete in the Olympics in Turin.

“[Jorden] can hear the crowd cheering,” Johnny Flowers said.

There remains the matter, however, of paying for the operation. Insurance does not cover the $65,000 cost. The Flowers are hoping for donations to the newly created Jorden Flowers I Can Hear You Now Fund, and for Flowers’ several sponsors to chip in.

As if she doesn’t have enough on her mind, Flowers, 32, still must make the Olympic team.

Four years ago in Salt Lake City, she and her driver, Jill Bakken, shocked the world by winning the first women’s bobsled competition. Now with a new driver, Jean Prahm, she is intent on repeating in Turin. But medals won’t buy a ticket. Currently, Prahm and Flowers rank second among three American teams in the World Cup circuit. The top two teams make it. Flowers knows she must improve, but things are “going great,” she said. Especially with her family there.

“Having the boys here is a relief,” she said. “It’s great to see their faces. A lot of athletes get homesick.”

The term “brakeman” is kind of misnomer because the primary job is to push — hard. An All-American long jumper and sprinter at Alabama-Birmingham, Flowers has the requisite speed to push the sled into the essential fast start. “If you’re behind at the start, it’s impossible to catch up at the finish,” she said.

Joining Prahm was controversial, but the switch was nothing new in bobsledding. In Olympic circles, it is known as “musical drivers,” where drivers seek out the best pushers. Prahm, who was nicknamed “Mean Jean” for how she dumped a previous pusher before the 2002 games, said, “I think I have the best brakeman in the world.”

But how did a black woman from Birmingham get to be the best bobsled brakewoman in the world?

Pretty much by accident. From age 9, Flowers was going to be a track star. Her hero was Jackie Joyner Kersee, the multi-event Olympic medalist. Years later, Kersee wrote the forward to Flowers’ book, “Running on Ice.”

Flowers excelled in track at UAB, but a multitude of injuries wrecked her Olympic chances in 1996 and 2000. She was resigned to coaching.

Then she and Johnny, a former football player and track athlete at UAB, noticed a flier distributed by luge star Bonnie Warner advertising for bobsledders. Hey, why not? They traveled to Lake Tahoe to try out. But Johnny pulled a hamstring during the testing phase, leaving it up to Vonetta.

“The joke was, ‘I have to go on, live out the dream,’” she said. “But it was still a joke for me. I was going through the motions.”

Yet Warner liked what she saw and invited Flowers to Germany to learn the sport. The lessons took. Although Flowers originally was cut from the 2002 team, she showed enough to be invited back. Then came Salt Lake City, and the gold, and then everything else.

Regardless of what happens in Turin, Vonetta Flowers feels like a winner.

“I feel like with [Jorden] having his surgery, that’s the gold medal already,” she said.

Flowers talked a lot about her kids, how she refused day care, choosing instead to take them to meets, and everywhere else. She toted them in a double-stroller with oversized tires. They even wore helmets. She talked about the difficult pregnancy, how doctors stuck a catheter in her thigh to administer medication to stop the contractions.

Most of all, she talked about the joys of motherhood.

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