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National Guard Bobsledder Jill Bakken Wins Olympic Gold

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2002 – A soft-spoken National Guard soldier steered her two-seat bobsled to a gold medal Feb. 19 in the first women's bobsled competition featured in the Olympic Games.

Spc. Jill Bakken, 25, of the Utah Army National Guard and the Army World Class Athlete Program and civilian brakeman- pusher Vonetta Flowers of Alabama drove into the pages of Olympic history.

Bakken's One of 12 Military Athletes at Olympics

American Forces Press Service

Gold medal-winning bobsledder Spc. Jill Bakken is just one of a troupe of soldiers competing in the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Spc. Shauna Rohbock is an alternate in women's bobsledding. Spcs. Doug Sharp and Mike Kohn and Sgt. Dan Steele are three-quarters of a U.S. four-man bobsled team. Steele is a veteran of 1998 Nagano Winter Games in Japan and is competing in his second Olympics. All three men are in the National Guard.

2nd Lt. Garrett Hines was a brakeman for the two-man bobsled event. His sled missed a bronze medal by .03 of a second. Hines, a member of the Individual Ready Reserve, is also competing in his second Olympics.

In addition to bobsledding, soldiers competed in the biathlon. Most are also in the Army World Class Athlete Program. Though game, they weren't as successful.

The biathlon combines shooting and cross-country skiing. Racers are timed through a course and then, at set intervals, must fire at targets. There are time penalties for missing targets.

Army Spc. Jeremy Teela has been the most successful U.S. Olympic military biathlete. Teela placed 14th in the grueling men's 20-kilometer course Feb. 11, 20th in the 10-kilometer sprint Feb. 13, and 23rd in the 12.5-kilometer pursuit race Feb. 16.

Teammate Sgt. Travis Lawton Redman finished 54nd in the 10-kilometer sprint and 52nd in the 12.5-kilometer pursuit. Team alternate is Staff Sgt. Dan Westover.

Sgt. Kristina Sabasteanski, Spc. Andrea Nahrgang and Spc. Kara Salmela made the women's U.S. biathlon squad. Spc. Jill Krause was an alternate.

Sabasteanski finished 55th and Salmela, 59th, in the 15-kilometer biathlon Feb. 11. In the 7.5-kilometer sprint race Feb. 13, Salmela finished 49th and Nahrgang finished 50th. Salmela and Nahrgang recorded 45th and 47th place finishes in the women's 10-kilometer pursuit race Feb. 16. All three were on the U.S. women's four-member relay team, which finished 15th and last on Feb. 18. Rounding out the team was civilian Rachel Steer.

The unheralded USA-2 duo's two-run total time of 1:37.76 seconds at the Utah Olympic Park beat two German teams that slid to the silver and bronze medals. The better-known USA- 1 team of driver Jean Racine and brakeman Gea Johnson finished fifth.

Bakken's the first World Class Athlete Program member ever to win Olympic gold, according to Army officials. Flowers became the first African American ever to win Winter Olympic gold -- and during African American History Month. The two are the first Americans to medal in Olympic bobsledding since 1956, when the U.S. men claimed the bronze.

"It's an amazing feeling. We had a lot of fun today," Bakken said afterward. "There was a lot of tough competition, so we definitely had our work cut out for us. The Germans are tough teams to beat. I just knew that I had to put in two solid, clean runs."

The duo had to battle back from injuries to make it to Salt Lake. Bakken underwent back surgery and two knee operations in the past four years to earn her shot at gold. Flowers, 28, was a track and field star at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She originally set her sights on representing the United States at the Summer Olympics, but injuries ended that dream. She switched sports and hooked up with Bakken in December.

"I knew we had to have a good start, and I knew we were going to do really well on that," Bakken said. "I was thinking about how I needed to get down the track clean."

It was also a golden moment for two other Army Guard soldiers, Spc. Bill Tavares of New York and Sgt. Tuffield "Tuffy" Latour of Vermont. They are women's bobsled team coaches and members of the World Class Athlete Program.

Tavares, head coach, is a three-time Olympian who rode the luge in the 1992 Winter Games. Latour is the driving coach. His grandfather was a bobsled driver for the United States in the 1948 Games.

Bakken joined the Utah Guard's 115th Engineer Group headquarters in Draper in March 2000. She became an Army world-class athlete after basic and advanced individual training in mid-2000.

"She went from boot camp back to bobsledding," beamed her mother, Peggy Smith. "I knew she had it in her. I'm so happy for her. She's gone through a lot of injuries and come back to do this."

Bakken competed Feb. 19 in her hometown of Park City, Utah. About 40 members of her family witnessed the gold medal efforts that included a track-record time of 48.81 seconds during the first run.

Bakken is an American bobsledding pioneer. Born in Portland, Ore., she attended the first training camp of the fledgling U.S. women's team in 1994 when she was a high school junior. That made her, at 17, the youngest bobsledder in the sport's history.

"I had a ton of relatives there. It was awesome," Bakken said Tuesday night, admitting that she thought she was dreaming. "They've supported me through the whole thing - not just this race - but ever since I started sliding.

"I never really wanted to quit. There were tough times injury-wise, but I never wanted to quit. I wanted to go the Olympics, and now I'm here," she said.

(Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to the National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Office, Arlington, Va. The United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation also contributed to this report.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSpc. Jill Bakken of the Utah Army National Guard and the Army World Class athlete program was half the U.S. bobsledding team that captured Winter Olympic gold in Salt Lake City. The Feb. 19, 2002, victory marked the first time since 1956 that any U.S. team has won any medal in any Olympic bobsledding event. Photo by Petty Officer 1st class Preston Keres, USN.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSpc. Jill Bakken of the Utah Army National Guard (left) and her civilian brakeman-pusher Vonetta Flowers adopt a pre-race pose before negotiating the 16-turn Olympic bobsled track and capturing first place and gold. Their victory Feb. 19, 2002, marked the first time America has won a medal in any Olympic bobsledding event since 1956. Flowers became the first African American to win a Winter Olympic gold medal. Photo by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USARNG.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVonetta Flowers (left) and Spc. Jill Bakken power up in the push zone for their 80-mile-an-hour ride down the Winter Olympic bobsledding track. Bakken, the driver, and Flowers, the brakeman, won the first gold medal presented in Olympic women's bobsledding Feb. 19, 2002. Photo by Petty Officer 1st class Preston Keres, USN.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVonetta Flowers (left) and Spc. Jill Bakken power up in the push zone for their 80-mile-an-hour ride down the Winter Olympic bobsledding track. Bakken, the driver, and Flowers, the brakeman, won the first gold medal presented in Olympic women's bobsledding Feb. 19, 2002. Photo by Petty Officer 1st class Preston Keres, USN.  
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