Women's Bobsled: An Unexpected Victory

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Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers knew they were just "the other team" in women's bobsled. How could they compete for headlines against the tawdry tales spinning around the pilot of the USA 1 sled, Jean Racine? Racine gave us betrayal, arbitration, injury, anger, death and even court dates in the family. She appeared in Olympic-themed ads for Visa and NBC. Bakken and Flowers didn't even have an agent.

But now, Bakken and Flowers have something that no other woman in the world can lay claim to: an Olympic bobsled gold medal. Flowers, 28, of Alabama, also found herself with another honor — she is the first black athlete, male or female, from any country in the world, to win gold at the Winter Games. Who knows? By the end of the week, she and Bakken may not only have an agent, but a deal or three.

Theirs was a surprise finish in the inaugural women's Olympic bobsled competition, which was expected to end with either Racine, a two-time world No. 1 driver, or one of two German teams, whose drivers ranked first and second this season, on top of the podium. Bakken, who has been hampered by injury and poor performance, hasn't won a World Cup event for years and was ranked sixth coming into the Games. But a record-breaking start time led to a track-record run in the first heat, and her USA 2 sled made a clean, relatively quick second run to win.

"This is an amazing feeling," a giggling, sometimes teary Bakken said afterward. "There was a lot of tough competition, so we definitely had our work cut out for us because of the Germans. But it was a lot of fun."

Before the Games fun was pretty scarce as the country's three top drivers — Bakken, Racine and Bonny Warner — battled for two Olympic berths. Each was looking for the best possible grunt, or push athlete, for their sled. And in bobsled, drivers have the power to pick who sits in the back seat, with coaches playing only an advisory role.

Warner started things rolling in October, when she refused to guarantee Flowers that she would remain her push athlete through the Olympic trials. Flowers quit, and went home to Alabama thinking her bobsled days were over.

Bakken, 26, a seven-year bobsled veteran, had spent the past season sliding with her best friend, Shauna Rohbock. But she got to thinking about the potential of Flowers, a seven-time all-America track and field athlete, and decided to organize a push-off. "It was very difficult of me to ask, and it was very difficult for Shauna to have a push off, but she did because she's an athlete and she knows the game," said Bakken yesterday, crediting Rohbock with playing an important role in getting her to the Games. (Even after Rohbock lost her seat, she continued to help Bakken prepare her sled, and was on hand Tuesday to celebrate.)

Bakken's bake-off also had a third contestant: Gea Johnson, a newcomer to the U.S. bobsled team who was posting incredible start times with Warner. When Johnson won the push-off, Racine decided to act, and, as America's top gun pilot, laid claim to the top gun grunt. She told her partner and best friend, Jen Davidson, that she was out and Johnson was in. (Racine had reassured Davidson that their slowing times would not affect their partnership.) Warner lost the push athlete she wanted, and failed to perform up to speed at trials. Davidson took the matter to arbitration, but ultimately withdrew her claim. Racine was vilified in the press for what was seen as a betrayal at worst, a poorly handled sporting decision at best. But she and Johnson immediately posted improved times, and it looked as though the end would justify the means.

Bakken and Flowers were able to stay comfortably in the shade even after all teams began training in Salt Lake as, through no fault of her own, Racine continued down the twisty tabloid course. Back home in Michigan, her father David was facing a charge of sexual child abuse, the allegation involving a 13-year-old friend of Jean's younger sister. Then Saturday, Gea Johnson busted a hamstring on a training run. This time, Racine made a strange decision: rather than putting athletic potential above friendship and replace Johnson with a healthy alternate, she would keep her on and hope the leg healed. It didn't. "Imagine someone stabbing you with a knife and scraping it down your leg, deeper and deeper and deeper with every step you take, and it being on fire at the same time," Johnson told TIME of how it felt to sprint while pushing about 400lbs of sled. USA 1 went from posting some of the strongest start-times on the women's circuit to the third-worst on the first run of Tuesday's competition, and the second-worst on the second. Still, they came in fifth in a field of 15.

"It's not like we crashed and burned," a tear-stained Racine said. "I'm very proud of that fifth place, especially when I know more effort went into our fifth place finish than anyone else tonight." Effort that could result in surgery for Johnson, depending on the results of an MRI scheduled for today.

None of the hoopla surrounding Racine and Johnson, however, should overshadow what was a historic, heroic performance by Bakken and Flowers. They are the best in the world — never again will they be just the "other team."