Generally speaking, when it comes to the Winter Olympics, Black athletes are not as prevalent as in the Summer Olympics. Many of us first became acquainted with winter sports — bobsledding to be exact — when the movie Cool Runnings was released in 1993. The film was based on four Jamaican bobsledders with dreams of competing in the Games despite their Caribbean backgrounds. Loosely based on the 1988 Jamaican national team, the comedy follows the group as they try to break into a predominantly white sport, but fall short when they crash out of the competition. Art imitated life as the real team crashed out on their third and penultimate scheduled run. However, the Games had another bright spot.

American figure skater Debi Thomas became the first African American athlete to win a medal in the Winter Games when she took home a bronze medal. Fourteen years would pass before a Black athlete took the podium with the gold medal. That athlete is Vonetta Flowers.

Partnered with driver Jill Bakken, Flowers took home the hardware in the inaugural Olympic bobsled two-woman event. She was not only the first African American to win gold in the Winter Games, she was the first Black athlete from any country to do so. Much like the fictional athletes from Cool Runnings, her roots were in the sport of track and field. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of Jimmie and Bobbie Jeffries began her track career at the tender age of 9. She went on to earn a scholarship to University of Alabama-Birmingham. From 1992 until 1997, she served as team captain for four years while cementing her legacy on the oval.

During her time with the Blazers, Flowers won 35 Conference USA titles en route to being voted most valuable player in the conference six times and was UAB’s first seven-time All-American. It’s no secret that the US Olympic track team is one of — if not — the hardest teams to make, and Flowers faced that harsh reality when failing to make the 1996 team in the 100-meter dash and the 2000 team in long jump. After several injuries and five surgeries, she decided it was time for a second act. At first, she thought the next phase of her life was coaching; she served as an assistant coach at her alma mater. But, less than a week after the Olympic Trials, her husband Johnny, also a track athlete, saw a flyer that would make history. It was a flyer for the US Bobsled Team.

It started out as something to do and joke about with their family and friends back in Alabama. “We laughed about it,” Vonetta said in a previous interview. “We’d go back home to Alabama and tell our friends and family that, ‘Guess what we did today? We tried out for the bobsled team.’ You know, just thinking they would get a laugh out of it.” A pulled hamstring ended the quest for her husband, but the decorated sprinter/jumper made the cut and was on her way to making her first Olympic team – but on a different track. Training in Park City, Utah, her first trip down the bobsled track was exhilarating, but terrifying at the same time. “It felt like I had been placed in a trash can and thrown down a hill,” she said. “So I was scared out of my mind.”

The fear soon subsided and it was time to grind. The role of the brakewoman-pusher is to both start and stop the sled. After pushing, Flowers had to time her entry into the sled and bury her head behind the driver until it’s time to pull the brake at the end of the run. Armed with her experience of timing the starting gun perfectly in races, her speed and strength gave her a competitive edge. With the sled weighing 450 pounds, Flowers had to put on 20 pounds of muscle.

In her rookie season, she was paired with driver Bonny Warner and they finished with a No. 2 US ranking and a No. 3 world ranking. It was in her second season that she was paired with her eventual gold medal partner Jill Bakken. A second place finish at the trials secured their spot on the national team. They entered the Games as dark horses, but had the luxury of friends and family presence with the Games being held stateside in Salt Lake City, Utah. Flowers and Bakken finished in first place in both heats and the tears flowed as they took their place on the podium. The duo was selected to carry the US flag for closing ceremonies. It had been 42 years since the US men’s team took hold a medal in any bobsledding event.

After the 2002 Games, Flowers transitioned to yet another role: mom. She and her husband welcomed twin boys, Jaden and Jorden, in August of 2002. Three months premature, Jorden was born deaf and the couple elected to try an experimental surgery only offered in Italy. As Turin, Italy was the site for the next Winter Games, the family relocated for both Jorden’s surgery as well as Flowers’ training. Returning to the bobsled track five months after the births of the twins, her gold medal driver was taking a break from the sport. Paired with Jean Racine Prahm, Flowers won bronze at the 2004 World Championships before placing 5th at the 2005 World Championships. After the duo finished sixth at the 2006 Olympics, she decided to retire.

More than 20 years after her historical gold medal win, Flowers is l`iving in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and their three sons, and wants to encourage diversification in winter sports. She acknowledges that some advances have been made and credits monobob silver medalist Elana Meyers Taylor with some of that progress. “She’s become the face of bobsled for the women, and I’m so proud of her,” Flowers said. “She’s inspired that next generation. Hopefully, there will be more diversity in all the sports, not only bobsled. There are a lot of great athletes out there. Hopefully, seeing people that look like them on TV, competing at such a high level, will inspire others to give this a try.”

Conversely, Meyes Taylor credits Flowers as the reason she was attracted to the sport. “Vonetta’s the reason I came out to bobsled,” she said. “Seeing somebody who looked like me, who came from another sport, transferred into bobsled, and had success is what put the idea in my head that I could figure it out. I definitely wouldn’t be here without her.”

Despite increased visibility, the most obvious reasons there aren’t more athletes of color participating in Winter Olympic sports are the barriers of entry. Unlike many sports that only require space and a minimal amount of equipment, most of the sports contested in the Winter Games require expensive equipment and access to spaces such as rinks, bobsled runs, and ski slopes. According to Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University and the Adidas distinguished professor of global sport, “These are even further out on the economic spectrum, in some instances, than golf and tennis.” To foster increased diversity, there are programs that have been implemented by US Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Flowers broke the ice in so many areas — ending the bobsled drought while also inspiring generations to come. It’s important to acknowledge her contributions to sports and to the world at a time when she can still smell her flowers.