Days of their lives
U.S. women deliver soap-opera performancePosted: Wednesday February 20, 2002 12:38 AM
PARK CITY, Utah -- The lurid backstory of women's bobsled (bobsleigh to you Olympians) became little more than a footnote Tuesday night when the U.S.'s No. 2 team stormed out of its relative obscurity to win gold -- the first medal for U.S. men or women in this strange sport.
Driver Jill Bakken and pusher Vonetta Flowers, who beat two German teams (and easily at that), had rated little notice in the buildup to this event, the first Olympic women's competition. They'd been overshadowed by their teammates, who not only were more accomplished on the World Cup circuit but practically tabloid-ready. Not that the No. 1 team of driver Jean Racine and pusher Gea Johnson had done anything particularly salacious. It's just that it caught a lot of people's attention when Racine dumped longtime partner and one-time best friend Jen Davidson. Drivers replace breakmen all the time; Bakken, for that matter, had recently removed Shauna Rohbuck, even conducting a contest for her replacement. But something about the No. 1 team's shakeup, perhaps because it was among women and thus more easily characterized as a catfight, got the newspapers going.
In any event, Bakken and Flowers were sliding under everybody's radar, though if there really was radar, they'd have been pulled over to the shoulder. Based largely on Flowers' push times -- the critical 50 meters at the start -- the pair turned in a track record on their first run, a blistering 48.81 down the super-fast track at Olympic Park, and immediately put the race out of reach. Their lead of .29 seconds over the silver-medal German team of Sandra Prokoff and Urike Holzner, in this sport, was the equivalent of a knockout punch. That margin was such that the second run was entirely anti-climatic. Somebody's sled would have to be overturned to make it even close.
Had they been favored, they might have gotten notoriety equal to their teammates, because, by those standards, the team was equally melodramatic. Flowers, a track star from the University of Alabama, had herself been fired by Bonny Warner, and until recently she considered herself out of the sport. Then Bakken, even though she'd had success with Rohbuk, decided to tinker a bit and hold a pushoff between her and Flowers. Bakken admitted that wasn't exactly pleasant but that Rohbuk remained supportive even when she was removed. "Shauna helped me with my runners, gave me tremendous support," she said.
The No. 1 team wasn't so lucky in public relations or on the track. When Racine, who was No. 3 on the World Cup tour, brought Johnson onto her sled, it looked as if the combination would prove unbeatable; her starts certainly would be improved. Davidson wasn't so supportive, by the way, calling for an arbitration hearing (which she lost). Then Johnson injured her hamstring in training on Saturday, and the possibility existed that Racine would get even yet another pusher. But that wasn't possible, and Johnson was called on to grit it out.
Unfortunately, because of Johnson's injury, which had her stumbling by the second run, the No. 1 team could not get very good push times -- the second of them a disastrous 5.58 seconds, the second worst among the 15 teams -- and no amount of driving could get them down the slope in medal time. Amazingly, though, they did finish fifth, almost a miracle considering those starts.
This victory may have made up somewhat for the men's near-miss, where Todd Hayes and Garret Hines missed a medal by .03 of a second in the two-man event on Sunday. The U.S. men's medal drought now goes to 50 years, while the women scored right out of the chute.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Richard Hoffer is in Utah covering the Olympic bobsled competition for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.