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American bobsleigh driver Jill Bakken, who made her debut in the sport at 16, won the first ever Olympic women’s competition at Salt Lake City 2002, in tandem with Vonetta Flowers.
Born in the US city of Portland, Jill Bakken learned to ski at an early age, and excelled in regional downhill competitions during her teenage years. She was also a talented sprinter and basketball player, but her love of speed saw her gravitate towards bobsleigh, a discipline that was still at the development stage for women and not yet part of the female Olympic winter programme. Having approached the United States Bobsled Federation and expressed her desire to become a driver, Bakken took part in her first race on the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Run in Lake Placid, becoming, at 16, the youngest driver in the history of the sport.
Basing herself in Calgary (CAN), where a female bobsleigh programme was developing, Bakken competed in the inaugural women’s two-man bob FIBT World Cup season in 1994. Alongside Jean Racine, another trailblazing American bobsleigh pilot, she achieved impressive results on the circuit. Much to her delight, in 1999 the IOC decided to add bobsleigh to the Olympic programme for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
The Oregon native subsequently joined the Utah National Guard and entered the US Army World Class Athlete Program, a military unit that supports elite athletes within the army, helping them to prepare for the Olympic Games.
While Bakken was making gradual progress despite suffering frequent injuries, Vonetta Flowers was also harbouring an Olympic dream, but her hopes were focused on the athletics track. A star long jumper and sprinter at the University of Alabama, she failed to qualify for the Olympic Games in 1996 and 2000. She decided to try her hand at bobsleigh after her husband had seen a flyer encouraging American athletes to try out for the team.
On 19 February 2002 at Utah Olympic Park, Flowers and Bakken, who had only joined forces the previous year, got off to a great start in the women’s two-man contest in their red USA-2 bob, recording the fastest first run (48:81, a course record) and setting a new push start record. Ahead of the second run, the duo enjoyed a significant lead of 29/100th of a second over Sandra Prokoff’s Germany-1 team.
When USA-2 again clocked the fastest time in the second run, guaranteeing the Americans first place ahead of Germany-1 and Germany-2 (Susi-Lisa Erdmann and Nicole Herschmann), the home crowd erupted with joy. Bakken had become the first female bobsleigh pilot to win an Olympic gold.
“I had a ton of relatives there; it was awesome,” she exclaimed the following day. “I feel like I’m still dreaming. They've supported me through the whole thing – not just this race, but ever since I started sliding. There were tough times, injury-wise, but I never wanted to quit. I wanted to go the Olympic Games, and now I'm here.”
After bringing the curtain down on her sliding career in 2006, Bakken later took up the role of driving coach for the Canadian bobsleigh team, following in the footsteps of her husband, Florian Linder, who now works as a performance analyst for the Russian Bobsleigh Federation.