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OLYMPICS HELENE ELLIOTT

She Is Hoping for Special Thrill

January 22, 2006|HELENE ELLIOTT

Vonetta Flowers will never forget the sweet sound of "The Star Spangled Banner" playing in her honor after she won the women's bobsled gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

She hopes her 3-year-old son Jorden will someday hear the same kind of tribute. First, she hopes he will be able to hear her voice.

Flowers gave birth to twin sons Jorden and Jaden in August 2002, six months after she'd teamed with Jill Bakken at Salt Lake City. The boys were three months premature: Jaden weighed 3 pounds 8 ounces and Jorden was 2 pounds 9 ounces. Jaden spent the first six weeks of his life in the hospital and Jorden one week more.

After suspecting something was wrong with Jorden's hearing, Flowers and her husband, Johnny, learned that the boy had been born without a cochlear nerve and had no connection between his ears and the part of the brain responsible for hearing. They taught both boys sign language but wanted to explore every option; a long and winding trail sent them to Italy and Dr. Vittorio Colletti, who last month implanted electrodes into Jorden's brainstem in an effort to send sounds to the boy's brain.

Colletti is scheduled to activate the device in Verona on Monday, three days after Flowers and driver Jean Prahm finished fifth in a World Cup race at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in one of their final tune-ups for the Turin Olympics.

"We're praying that everything is going to be successful and he will be hearing," Flowers told reporters during a conference call last week.

Flowers said Colletti is the only doctor in the world who performs the procedure, called an auditory brainstem implant, on young children. It hasn't been approved for children in the U.S. She considers it fate that bobsledding took her to Cortina, Italy, last year to talk to Colletti and learn about the technique.

"This was the plan for our lives," Flowers said, "to meet Dr. Colletti, so we could have this operation."

Flowers, a native of Birmingham, Ala., who turned to bobsled after she didn't make the U.S. long jump team for the 2000 Sydney Games, took five months off after giving birth. When she returned, Bakken was taking a break from the sport, so she hooked up with Prahm.

Known as Jean Racine before her marriage last fall, Prahm was dubbed "Mean Jean" after she dumped longtime brakeman Jen Davidson two months before the 2002 Games and replaced her with former heptathlete Gea Johnson. When Johnson pulled a hamstring a few days before the competition, Prahm tried to lure Flowers to her sled. Flowers declined and won gold with Bakken, while Prahm and Johnson finished fifth.

Prahm and Flowers are fifth in the World Cup point standings, two places behind driver Shauna Rohbock and brakeman Valerie Fleming. Rohbock was Bakken's brakeman until two months before the Olympics, when she lost a push-off to Flowers. Alternate Bethany Hart is the fifth member of the U.S. team.

Unlike four years ago, when the partner-switching created a frenzy, the mood surrounding the team is calm.

"The last Olympics, it was blown out of proportion by the media," Rohbock said. "It happens every Olympics with the men, and I don't know if it was because it was women or what" that it caused a fuss.

Prahm said she and Flowers "just came together at the right time." She added, "I'm looking at these Olympics a little differently than four years ago. The Olympic team we have, we have a great relationship. All five of us work well together. It's a much better feeling for me than I had four years ago."

Men Are Bobbing Along

Todd Hays of Del Rio, Texas, and Brock Kreitzburg of Akron, Ohio, finished fifth in a World Cup two-man bobsled race at St. Moritz on Saturday and retained the lead in the World Cup two-man standings. Andre Lange and Kevin Kuske of Germany won in 2 minutes 13.10 seconds. Hays and Kreitzburg were timed in 2:13.64 after having trouble at the top of their second run.

Steve Holcomb of Park City, Utah, and Randy Jones of Atlanta were disqualified after sanding their runners too thin. Sliders polish and sand runners to make them smooth and reduce friction.

U.S. Coach Tuffy Latour said he accepted responsibility for the gaffe and would check the legality of the runners on the U.S. four-man sleds before today's race. Hays, a 2002 silver medalist in the four-man event, and Holcomb will drive four-man sleds. Hays is second in the World Cup four-man standings and Holcomb is ninth.

Here and There

Johnny Weir has dropped the long program he performed to win his third consecutive U.S. men's figure skating championship last week and replaced it with a modified version of the "Otonal" program he skated last season.

Weir said on his website that he watched a video of his routine to music by Maksim Mrvica at St. Louis last week "and although I landed all my jumps, I had no connection to the audience or music. I was bored watching myself."

U.S. Figure Skating is expected to announce early this week the date or dates Michelle Kwan will perform before a five-person panel that will determine if she's fit enough to compete at an elite level in Turin. Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion and nine-time U.S. champion, missed the U.S. championships because of a groin pull and petitioned for a medical bye onto the Olympic team. The U.S. Olympic Committee must submit its entire roster to Turin organizers by Jan. 30.

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