Four years after heading into the Olympics with a number of outside distractions, the U.S. Women's Bobsled team is again one of the top contenders for a gold medal. In marked contrast to the soap opera scenario surrounding the pairings for the two women sleds in 2002, VOA's Steve Schy reports that preparations for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics should be smooth sledding for Jean Prahm and Vonetta Flowers.
In the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Jean Racine and Jen Davidson were expected to be America's top bobsled medal hope. But just two months before the games, pilot Jean made the shocking decision to replace her brakeman and best friend with former heptathlete Gea Johnson.
That sparked a nasty media frenzy, with Racine picking up the nickname "Mean Jean." She says she made the switch to have the best chance at winning a medal, but it did not work out that way. Johnson injured her hamstring in practice and they finished a disappointing fifth.
American pilot Jill Bakken and her brakeman Vonetta Flowers were the surprise gold medalists.
Jean talks about 2002.
"It was a really tough thing to walk away from that Olympics after everything that had happened and then just not have a medal," said Jean Prahm. "It was really disappointing for me. I considered retiring after the Olympics. I was feeling pretty down on myself and was not really sure if my heart was still in it, but decided that I was going to make the commitment to come back for at least four more years and just try to have a pleasant Olympic experience."
Now, Jean Racine is Jean Prahm after getting married, and after Jill Bakken stepped away from the sport for a couple of years, Vonetta Flowers has teamed up with Prahm to try to qualify for February's 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
"What a lot of people do not know is Jill [Bakken] and I only competed in two races before the Olympics," said Ms. Flowers. "Jean and I have been racing together for the past three years. I have been with her longer than any driver and I am very excited to be in her sled. And I am looking forward to us racing together in Torino."
Jean Prahm is also looking forward competing at the Turin Winter Games.
"I feel that I have the best brakeman in the world right
now," she added. "So it is a great feeling going into the Olympic year, and I think she has proven that consistently day-in and day-out racing and pushing off against other brakemen. You know, I feel like I am in a really good place right now."
By capturing gold in Salt Lake City, Vonetta Flowers became the first African-American, and first black athlete from any nation to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
"I am really excited that my grandkids will be reading about me in history books," said Ms. Flowers. "That makes me feel really good. I truly feel blessed and honored to have that title."
But Vonetta also considered retiring after the Salt Lake City Games, though for a happier reason. On August 30, 2002, she gave birth to twin boys Jaden and Jordan.
"Actually the plan was to get pregnant after the  Olympics and start the family and be done with bobsled," she explained. "You know as an athlete we love to compete and I started missing the competition. I talked to the coaches and in order for me to come back into the sport my family is coming with me. I am not leaving them at home. It was not an option. And they agreed with me. They allowed my family to travel with me."
Jean Prahm and Vonetta Flowers are one of three pairs fighting for two spots on the women's 2006 bobsled team. World Cup points earned in five races will determine who represents the United States.
They tied for the gold medal three weeks ago in the World Cup race in Lake Placid, New York. The duo is ranked third in points on the World Cup circuit behind a German pair and Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming of the United States. Jill Bakken is back competing and is ranked fifth in the World Cup standings with her brakeman, Amanda Moreley.