Vonetta Flowers' legacy opens door to more diverse bobsled program

February, 17, 2013
2/17/13
10:02
AM ET

Vonetta Flowers became the first African-American bobsledder from any country to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics when she and Jill Bakken topped the podium at the 2002 Salt Lake Games. And the current U.S. women's bobsled team diversity reflects her legacy.

"It's pretty cool we're talking about how diverse the team is," 2010 Olympic bronze medalist Elana Meyers said recently while training at the test event for the 2014 Games outside Sochi. "We all started from Flowers. That's when most women started hearing about it, from Vonetta, with all the hype centered around her incredible accomplishment. Starting out there and following in her footsteps is pretty cool."

The 2012-13 World Cup team has seven black athletes: drivers Meyers and Jazmine Fenlator, plus brakemen Tianna Madison Bartoletta (a London 2012 gold medalist in the 4x100), Lolo Jones (a two-time Olympic hurdler), Aja Evans, Cherrelle Garrett and Maureen Ajoku. Driver Jamie Greubel and brakemen Katie Eberling and Emily Azevedo are white. (There are also two African-Americans on the men's bobsled team.)

"It really was just a matter of looking for the best athletes," Meyers said. "It wasn't something we really even thought about until the media started asking about us about it. As a driver, I'm just trying to get the fastest pusher possible because I know that's going to put me in the best possible position to get a medal.

"It doesn't matter where you come from; there's no concern whether we're diverse or not -- we're just going for the fastest pushers possible."

Meyers played a big part in the recruiting process. She suggested that Jones give bobsled a try several years ago and said she recruited others by sending out Facebook messages to as many athletes as she could find on the National Strength and Conditioning Association's list of All-Americans.

One of those who responded to the Facebook message was Eberling, a former volleyball player who was student-teaching. "It was an unusual way to get into a sport," Eberling said. "The first time I read it, I thought, 'This has got to be a joke.' Then I called my mom and read it to her and we laughed about it, but the more I read through it, and then actually talked to Elana, that's when I took it more seriously and realized this was a huge opportunity."

Azevedo, a hurdler at UC Davis, said Facebook and social media have opened the doors to bobsled.

"I think it's much easier now to get involved in the sport," said Azevedo, who added she had to pay about $1,000 to attend a tryout camp after the 2006 Olympics. "With social networking, there's a lot more outreach. Whereas, in the past, people who joined were people who sought it out or were a friend of a friend of a friend. ... Luckily, it's easier now. They make the recruiting easier and not having to spend as much money makes it easier on the athletes, as well."

Much of the attention has gone to the Summer Olympians, Jones and Madison Bartoletta, but Evans might be the most promising pusher. She has a rare background as a sprinter and a shot-putter, a blend of speed, power and technique that made her ideal for bobsled. Despite training since only last spring, she blew away the records at this summer's combine. "It makes me excited because I know how much more potential I have," she said.

Evans and Meyers finished second this past week at the World Cup competition outside Sochi. "It's cool to grow together," Evans said of the U.S. team. "Everyone is diverse and we all get to come together and grow as a team."

Azevedo said that while the current diversity is just a coincidence, it should help attract even more minorities to the sport.

"The exposure in general is something that will create more buzz," Azevedo said. "I would think after the Olympics, there is always an influx of athletes because people like myself see it on TV. Hopefully, we will get more athletes."

And if this team doesn't medal at Sochi, well, there are always other Olympic opportunities.

"I always tease them that they should go try out for rugby after this," U.S. women's coach Todd Hays said. "Imagine Elana and Jazmine and Jamie, they all have that speed and size. Emily, too. Across the board, they all would be very good physically. The question is, could they stand the brutality of the game. But physically, we have some very impressive girls, and tough as I know they are, it would be very interesting to see what they could do. ...

"If I was coaching about anything, they all would line up great. And the other side of it is, they are all very intelligent as well, so they could [play] Scrabble or 'Jeopardy,' too."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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