A Quiet Voice That Wouldn't Let Her Quit

A Quiet Voice That Wouldn't Let Her Quit

This Olympic athlete finally won gold–but in an entirely different sport.

Vonetta (rear) and Jill cross the finish line in record time in 2002.

The time had come. I'd trained for this moment since age nine. All along the race route fans jumped up and down, waving American flags, cheering.

I stood beside my bright red 2002 U.S. Olympic team bobsled. My heart pounded. Jill Bakken, my teammate, looked me straight in the eye. "Let's do it," she said. Jill tapped my fists with hers. Beneath us lay a mile-long, four-story-steep track of ice.

I adjusted my helmet and thought, Only God could explain the turn of events that has carried me here . Two years earlier I'd failed in my second attempt to make it as a long jumper on the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Making that team had been my all-consuming ambition.

Now, through a series of what seemed like miracles, I was representing my country at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in a sport I'd never even heard of two years ago.

I breathed deeply. We took our positions, Jill next to me on the starting block, near the rear of the sled. My job was to give us a supercharged running push start. "Back set," I said, flexing my legs into position. This was it. Our shot at the gold.

"Front set," said Jill. "Ready...Go!" I threw my body against the bobsled as hard as I could and grunted. I ran as fast as I could. We exploded out of the starting gate.

Seems like I've been running all my life. From the time I was little, I'd race the boys down the street outside our house in Birmingham, Alabama, and beat most of them.

But I didn't know how fast I really was until third grade. That's when Coach Thomas, of the local Marvel City Striders track team, came to my elementary school to time kids in the 50-yard dash–and to invite the fastest runners to join his squad.

He must have time-tested dozens of runners at our school that day. I was the fastest. That night he called my parents and asked if I could report to the Striders' practice the next day.

"Who are you?" Coach Thomas asked. He seemed surprised to see me.

"Vonetta Jeffrey," I said.

Coach Thomas looked me over. I was small for my age. Was he thinking that he'd made a mistake? "Okay. Let's see you run again." He put me against his best female sprinter. He blew his whistle and I leaped out of the blocks. I beat her. It seemed my feet barely touched the ground.

Coach Thomas took me aside. "You can be a great runner, Vonetta, maybe even the next Jackie Joyner-Kersee."

I didn't know then that Jackie was America's greatest female track and field star. But I knew Coach Thomas had trained lots of local athletes who'd gone on to compete in college, even the pros.

"But it takes more than just running fast. It takes commitment. It takes believing in yourself and your potential," he said.

Potential. I loved hearing that word.

Track became my life after that. Meets in the spring, practice all summer, cross country in the fall, more training in the winter. I grew strong and tall. I'm going to compete in the Olympics , I promised myself. I knew I had the potential.

One day when I was 11, Coach Thomas pulled me aside. "Vonetta, your legs are so powerful, you have such spring in your stride. I want you to try the long jump." I fell in love with it. What an incredible feeling, taking off from the runway board, then soaring through the air. I'd never felt so free.

The long jump became my specialty. By high school I didn't have time for much else. The night of my prom, I competed in the state championship track meet. Sprinting down the runway, I thought, Winning might get me a college scholarship , the next stop toward my Olympic dream.

I won an athletic scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. My goal was to compete in the 1996 Summer Games. By my senior year in 1996 I was a seven-time All-American.

At the time I was ranked among the top five female long jumpers in the country. "I feel like my time has come," I confided to my boyfriend Johnny.

Then in May, two months before the Olympic Trials, I was running wind sprints in practice. Racing down the track, I felt something rip in my thigh. I'd torn my left hamstring, just about the worst thing that could happen to a track and field athlete. No way could I recover in time.

Still, I went to the Trials. "Who knows?" I said to Johnny. Johnny was a former track star turned coach, and my biggest fan. "Maybe I can pull off a miracle."

When my turn came Johnny knew how tough that would be. But he also knew how determined I was to make the U.S. Team. I sprinted hard down the runway. Everything felt good. Maybe I can do it, I thought.

I hit the takeoff board and jumped as far as I could. Nothing. I finished 13th. Only the top three finishers qualified for the team.

I went off with Johnny. I didn't want anyone else to see how devastated I was. I didn't go to church much as a child, but since meeting Johnny I'd found faith. Now I turned to God. Why? I asked him. Why did this happen? I've worked my whole life for this goal!

Your time will come , a voice answered, sure and strong. Not a thought, a voice. I snapped to. Yes, I'd rededicate myself. The 2000 Olympics were four years away. I'd be 26, still young enough to compete. Okay, I decided.  I'm not finished yet.

Johnny and I had talked about marrying and starting a family, but now I put everything outside of training on hold. "We'll have to wait," I said. I moved from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to train during the week with my new coach.

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