By Cady Inabinett, managing editor of content
In the second annual installment of the Dr. Wilson Fallin Jr. Lecture Series, Olympic gold medalist Vonetta Flowers spoke on campus on Oct. 13.
Flowers is the first Black woman to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, winning a gold in bobsled at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City alongside her partner Jill Bakken. Flowers is also a native of Bessemer.
Before Flowers’s speech, UM President Dr. John Stewart addressed the audience. Stewart thanked Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Gregory Samuels calling him, “one awesome, awesome, Chief Diversity Officer and architect of these events.”
He also pointed out diversity efforts around campus, referencing the naming of Dr. Wilson Fallin Jr. Hall that occurred in May, the naming of the campus post office to the Charlie Webb Jr. Post Office—after an African American postal worker who worked at the university for over 30 years— that occurred earlier in the day and the lecture series as evidence of that.
“It’s been quite a day today, and quite a year, for us in our diversity efforts, of which this is a very important part,” Stewart said.
Stewart also noted that members of former exercise and nutrition science professor Jermaine Mitchell’s family were in the audience and dedicated the event in Mitchell’s honor. Mitchell passed away in February.
Following Stewart, Samuels introduced Flowers. Samuels described Flowers as, “someone who’s name and journey are familiar, especially to those in the greater Birmingham area,” and as, “a multi-talented woman who was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.”
As Flowers came on stage, footage from news coverage about her gold medal win played.
Flowers opened her speech by expressing her excitement to be back in her home state, close to where she grew up.
She also said she was excited to be part of the Fallin Lecture Series because she found his legacy to be inspiring.
“As I started preparing for this event, I became inspired of Dr. Fallin’s story because of his impact on community, his social activism and because of the lives he influenced and shaped over the years,” Flowers said.
Flowers then presented the message of her speech, saying, “I’m here to leave you with one special message: everyone needs a push.”
She pointed towards her own supportive communities as giving her the push she needed, reminiscing on her gold medal win, saying, “What wasn’t shown on TV was a group of people in the stands that supported me. People who saw me at my lowest points. People that have been there when I need to be motivated, challenged, encouraged, lifted-up, and people that guided me when I need it the most.”
Flowers walked audience members through the process of becoming an Olympian. She said she had dreamed of competing in the Olympics since she was 9 years old, hoping to compete in track. But, at the 1996 Olympic Trials, Flowers finished 13th in the 100-meter dash and long jump, and failed to qualify for the USA’s team.
“For me this was my ultimate goal in life. This dream helped me believe I could be somebody and accomplish something no one in my family had ever dreamed of doing,” she said, reflecting on not making the Olympic team.
But Flowers continued to train and made it to the 2000 Olympic Trials. However, Flowers had to undergo surgery in January of that year, leaving her only four months to recover before the trials. She ultimately placed 12th and did not qualify for the team again.
Flowers felt it was time for her to step away from running to focus on family, saying, “At this time my husband and I knew it was time for us to start the next chapter in our life. I had to deal with reality. I was a wife, I was 26 years old and my husband and I had planned on having six kids in the future. But, as you know, it didn’t work out that way, thank God.”
It was at the 2000 Olympic Trials that Flowers’s husband saw a sign encouraging track athletes to try out for the bobsled team. He encouraged Flowers to try out as a joke, but she was selected for the team.
“What started out as a joke,” she said, “turned out to be my road to gold.”
Flowers said prior to becoming a bobsledder, all she knew about the sport was from the movie “Cool Runnings.” But after training in Germany and competing in several races, she and her partner Bonny Warner were ranked second in the United States and third in the world.
As the two were preparing for the Olympic trials, Warner recruited a new partner who she thought would be stronger and faster than Flowers.
“Once again, my dreams of going to the Olympics had been shattered. I felt like a failure. I had done everything right in order to be successful,” she said.
Flowers credited her husband with encouraging her to keep competing, saying he wouldn’t let her quit. While speaking on this, Flowers grew teary-eyed—dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
Eventually, Flowers found a new partner in Bakken—an opportunity Flowers said made her feel like she had a second chance. The pair only competed together once before competing in the Olympic Trials and qualifying for the team.
Here, Flowers paused her speech to play video footage of her and Bakken’s gold medal run and the medal ceremony. Flowers became emotional while watching this footage as well. The audience applauded as the pair crossed the finish line.
“Going to the Olympics and winning the gold was a dream come true. I know my story’s filled with twist and turns and ups and downs, but I really believe that, if you have big dreams, you’re willing to take risks and walk by faith and trust in God, you can do anything you want. Because if a girl from Bessemer, Alabama with dreams of going to the Summer Olympics can compete in the Winter Olympics and win a gold medal, then anything is possible. And remember, everyone needs a push,” Flowers concluded her speech.
After her speech, Flowers spoke on the strong emotions she experienced during her speech, saying, “It’s been 20 years since we won our gold medal and it’s still as if it just happened.”
She also talked about how inspiring she found Fallin and Montevallo’s students.
“I’m so amazed. I haven’t gotten the chance to actually touch him—I want to shake his hand. But what an amazing thing he’s done for the community and for the world, and so I’m inspired by his story. And all of these young students, they inspire me, just talking with them today—great leaders,” she said.
Flowers and her husband met with Fallin later. She showed Fallin her Olympic gold medal and let him hold it. He remarked that the medal was heavy and that she would have to be in shape to wear it.
Cady Inabinett is the editor in chief of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in English and double-minoring in political science and peace and justice studies. She enjoys reading, watching movies, caring for houseplants and generally just being pretentious in her free time.