One morning in early November, Jean Racine climbed a steep hill and peered out at the site of her Olympic disappointment. The two-time world champion walked halfway up the outside of the bobsled run in Park City, Utah, and looked at the track for the first time since finishing a disheartening fifth at the Salt Lake City Games last February. "I disappeared this summer to reflect on things," says the 24-year-old Racine, "but the coaches kept calling me, saying, 'Come back, we need you.' After what I'd been through, I had to think about it."
But just when many figured she would retire, Racine decided to return. In late November in Calgary, at the first World Cup race this season, she finished third and reemerged as the U.S.'s best driver.
Her disappointing finish at the 2002 Games was only part of the reason she pulled back from the sport. In May 2001, Racine lost her mother, Cathy, to scleroderma, a lupus-related connective-tissue disease that has no cure. Then this past October, Jean's father, David, was sentenced to one year in jail for fondling a classmate of Jean's 13-year-old sister, Jessica, while the girl slept at the Racine house in Waterford, Mich., last year.
To try to forget her problems, Racine, an amateur singer in high school, recorded three demo songs for a pop—country music CD she hopes will attract the interest of a record company. She was leery of returning to the sport that had celebrated and then battered her. With longtime brakeman Jen Davidson, Racine had earned top three finishes in 21 straight World Cup races between 1998 and 2001. Racine and Davidson had been marketed as the Bobsled Girls, and in the quadrennium before the women's version of the sport made its Olympic debut, Racine had earned $500,000 in endorsements. Before the '01-02 season, however, Davidson injured her knee, and the duo's performances fell off. In December '01, at the urging of the U.S. coaching staff, Racine replaced Davidson with Gea Johnson, a seeming act of betrayal that brought Racine criticism from both Davidson and the media. Racine might not have been publicly tarred if U.S. coaches had made it clear that such moves are commonplace in
bobsledding and that they had recommended the change. "At the time," Racine says, "I think the coaches were afraid to step to the plate and share the heat." The Olympic results, of course, were disastrous for Racine and Johnson (who was slowed by a hamstring injury), as less heralded teammates Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers won the gold medal.
The Racine family had hoped that Cathy would live long enough to see her daughter compete in Salt Lake City. Cathy's sister, Linda Paul, donated part of her kidney to Cathy a month before she passed away. While Jean has neither lupus nor scleroderma, her grandmother Helen Paul, who died of cancer last March, had lupus, as does Jessica. Last spring Jean joined other Olympians as celebrity guests on the Weakest Link and donated $38,500 in winnings to the Scleroderma Foundation. "I was invited along with the [U.S.] gold medalists," Racine says, "so that Anne Robinson [the show's irreverent host] could take shots at me." During the program, when Robinson called Racine "Mean Jean," the bobsledder quick-wittedly asked Robinson if colleagues really called her "Evil Incarnate."
Racine says she now finds the bobsled track to be a sanctuary. "I'd forgotten how exciting it was to feel the sleds fly past you," she says. At that World Cup race in November she performed well with new brakeman Gina Bundy. But Bundy has since switched to driving, forcing Racine to find a new partner. That person will be Flowers, who will team with Racine this week at a World Cup event in Austria.
"She's taking an emotional risk by coming back and putting herself out there," Paul Stein, a family friend, says of Racine. "People bashed her because it made a good story, but she has what it takes to be a good, resilient soul." That would be a bobsledder's knack for staying on course when things seem to be sliding out of control.