The First African Americans to Win Olympic Medals

Vonetta Flowers

Vonetta Flowers celebrates with her bobsled teammate Jill Bakken (right) after winning a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Vonetta Flowers celebrates with her bobsled teammate Jill Bakken (right) after winning a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

In 2002, Vonetta Flowers of Birmingham, Alabama, became the world’s first Black athlete to win Olympic gold at a Winter Games. In Salt Lake City, Flowers, 28, sprinted on ice while pushing a 450-pound bobsled with her teammate Jill Bakken inside, before jumping in, and winning gold in the bobsled—less than two years after she picked up the sport by chance.

In college, Flowers was an All-American track and field athlete at the University of Alabama. She was so successful in the 100-meter dash and long jump that she was invited to the Team USA Olympic tryouts twice—for the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games. She narrowly missed out both times. But at her second Summer Games tryouts, Flowers’ husband Johnny, also an athlete, spotted a flyer. It was a wanted ad encouraging track and field athletes to try out for the American bobsled team—at the Winter Games.

“It never snows in Alabama,” Flowers told Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I never watched the bobsled before I got in one. The only thing I knew was ‘Cool Runnings,’” she said, speaking of the movie about the Jamaican bobsled team. In Salt Lake City, just 18 months after her first encounter with a bobsled, Flowers had her own Hollywood moment. 

Per: History

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