Bobsledders Jean Prahm and Vonetta Flowers celebrated their tie for first place in Friday's two-woman World Cup race at Verizon Sports Complex by simultaneously hugging and leaping and screaming. Vonetta's husband, Johnny, standing at the opposite end of the snow-covered platform that served as the finishing area, showed much more restraint. "Sweet," he said with a smile, "that's exactly what they needed."
Vonetta's delirium was understandable. She and Prahm had taken a large step toward winning a spot on the 2006 Olympic team. Johnny, meantime, reveled internally for far less than the 58.16 seconds it took his wife and Prahm to set up their first-place tie with Germany's Sandra Kiriasis and Anja Schneiderheinze (each team completed the day's two runs in 1 minute 56.06 seconds).
Distractions set in quickly. Their names were Jorden and Jaden, the couple's 3-year-old twin boys. Mommy's work for the afternoon was done. Daddy's was not.
Jorden, barely visible under a red plush hooded jacket and tiny blue ski pants, stuck a fistful of snow into the nose of Jaden, older by two minutes. Jaden, swaddled in a matching outfit, burst into tears and punched Jorden in the arm.
As Jaden's wailing intensified, Johnny swooped down to pick him up, giving Jorden a light tap in the shoulder by way of extracting justice -- "there, Daddy got him back" -- then commenced the work of plying a thick mitten back onto one of Jaden's hands while making sure Jorden had his fill of lukewarm hot chocolate. Just then, Mommy appeared.
With an enormous smile, she held out the bouquet of flowers as if it were a peace offering. She bent down and kissed both of her boys before being lifted off her feet in an embrace by Daddy.
"I don't want to sound cliched," Johnny had said earlier. "But it's a team. You can't have any egos on a team to be successful. . . . I do my share. She does her share. You make it work."
Of the two teams on which Flowers plays a key role as the Olympics approach, it's hard to determine which creates more daily drama. Flowers and Prahm are one of three two-woman bobsled teams fighting for two Olympic team spots (World Cup points earned in five races, including this one, will determine who goes to Turin for the Feb. 10-26 Games).
"It's really tense this year," Flowers said. "Every race is an Olympic Trials. We have to go into every race trying to beat our teammates. It's not fun."
The pair joined forces after the 2002 Games, in which Flowers became the first person of African descent to win a Winter Olympic gold medal, while Prahm -- then Jean Racine -- earned the nickname of "Mean Jean" after dumping her best friend for a more accomplished brakeman just two months before the Olympics. Vilified for the move, she then failed to win a medal.
"I'm definitely going to be a lot more careful this time around," Racine said recently. "It was a really tough thing to walk away from that Olympics after everything that happened, and not have a medal. I considered retiring."
Flowers did, too, but for decidedly different reasons. Her life had made a screeching turn leading up to the 2002 Games, and she wasn't sure she wanted to stay on the same course. Two days after failing to make the 2000 Olympics at the track and field trials in Sacramento, she had attended a bobsled tryout on a lark. Two months later, she had gone from coaching track and field in Alabama to traveling to some of the coldest places in the world.
This Olympic chase has brought Flowers's life another wrenching, though joyous, turn. On Aug. 30, 2002, she gave birth three months early to boys that almost fit into the palm of her hand: Jaden weighed 3 pounds 8 ounces, Jorden 2 pounds 9 ounces. Both spent nearly two months in the hospital. As she and Johnny coaxed them through their earliest days, bobsled was the last thing on her mind.
But at five months old, the boys were propped up in front of cameras for passport photos. Flowers wanted to get back into the sport. And her family was going with her. Thanks to the sponsorship windfall her gold-medal victory brought, Johnny could afford to quit his job as a manager at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. And so he did.
"We didn't know how long this opportunity was going to last," Johnny said. "We knew it was going to take both of us focusing on her career in order to make it happen."
Flowers said she made her position clear to everyone at USA Bobsled, the sport's governing body.
"My family is coming with me," she said. "I'm not leaving home. It's not an option."
The boys have been to Canada, Germany, Latvia, Italy and every other stop on the World Cup circuit. The family stays in bed-and-breakfasts, trying not to disrupt the rest of the U.S. team, and they are not always successful. As Vonetta put it, she is used to sleepless nights; her teammates are not. "Sometimes Val [Fleming] and I get stuck in the room next to them, and it's not always great for us," admitted U.S. driver Shauna Rohbock, who with Fleming finished third Friday in 1:56.37.
When Vonetta is working, Johnny manages. About 15 minutes before his wife took off on her final run today, Johnny yanked down Jorden's ski pants and adeptly slipped on a diaper while Jaden pretended to drive a bobsled that sat on the floor of the lodge below the track. They had sought refuge there from the cold, but it was now time to go. Reminding his boys that Mommy was about to race, Johnny stuffed their arms into jackets, pulled hoods over their heads, and jammed their fingers into gloves. Holding both of their hands, Johnny half-walked, half-dragged them up the hill to the finish. A VIP car happened by, offering a much-appreciated lift.
They made it to the finish about three minutes before Prahm and Flowers sped past.
"That Mommy?" Jaden said, pointing at the track. "Mommy fast!"
Note: Switzerland's Maya Pedersen won Friday's women's skeleton World Cup race in 56.64 seconds, topping Canadian Melissa Hollingsworth-Richards (56.85) and American Katie Uhlaender (57.21).