When Vonetta Jeffrey was 9 years old, her first track and field coach told her if she worked hard she could be the next Jackie Joyner Kersee.
At the time, Vonetta did not know who Joyner Kersee was, but she soon found out and the seed of a decades-long dream to be an Olympian was planted.
Vonetta did not become the next Joyner Kersee. Instead, she became the first person of African descent to win a gold medal at a Winter Olympics.
Vonetta, whose married name is Vonetta Flowers, has been living in northwest St. Johns County with her husband, Johnny Flowers, and three sons for the past 11 years. On the eve of the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games, Vonetta recounted her winding road from track and field All-American to bobsled gold medalist at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Kersee became Flowers’ hero and inspiration as she became a track star in her own right. She earned a scholarship at her hometown University of Alabama-Birmingham where she was a seven-time All-American. Twenty years after her graduation, she still holds some school records.
In her junior year, she qualified for the 1996 U.S. Olympic track and field trials but finished 12th in long jump. Only the top three make the U.S. team.
She didn’t want her career to be over, so she trained four more years.
She went to the 2000 Olympic track trials in Sacramento, California, two months after undergoing ankle surgery. This time she finished 11th in long jump.
Flowers said she realized her goal of becoming an Olympian was basically over. But while packing to go home, Johnny, who was also a track star at UAB and played football for the Blazers, found a flyer recruiting track athletes for bobsledding.
“I went and tried out and I did well,” Flowers said of the tryout that consisted of runs of 30, 60 and 100 meters, the shot put, vertical jump and standing broad jump.
“A month later I was in Germany pushing a bobsled,” she said. “Two months later I was in my first race. And 18 months later I won a gold medal.”
That first ride did not go well.
“I felt like I was put in a trash can and rolled down a hill,” she said. “It was the worst thing ever. It was frightening. But each time it got better.”
Flowers, the brakeman, and driver Jill Bakken would win the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s bobsled.
“I remember crossing the finish line, looking up at the scoreboard, the excitement, the tears,” she said. “My family was there. My first track coach (DeWitt Thomas) drove form Alabama to be there. It was an amazing moment that words can’t describe.”
It was a moment she wanted to repeat. Her twin sons, Jayden and Jorden, were born later that year and when they were four months old, Flowers returned to the sled. Four years later, she competed at the Torino Games, where she finished sixth.
Jorden was born deaf and the family moved to St. Johns County to be near the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech in Jacksonville, where Jorden learned how to hear with his surgical implant. Jayden, a freshman at Creekside High and Jorden, an eighth-grader at Patriot Oaks Academy, are both active in sports, as is 8-year-old Jaxon.
None of them compete in track, but Johnny and Vonetta use track and field drills to improve their speed and agility for baseball, football and basketball.
Vonetta still goes on occasional speaking engagements to discuss her unusual journey to Olympic gold. She was a guest of Liberty Mutual on Friday to watchthe Pyeongchang opening ceremony at Park City, Utah, the site of her gold medal-winning run.
“Looking back at videos of my race I still get emotional,” she said. “I think about all the sacrifices, all the ups and downs. For me, my goal was never to go to the Winter Olympics. It was to represent my country.
“The reason I was successful was all the hard work I did in track and field. It turned out that this was God’s goal for me all along. I just didn’t know it.”