CURATOR CORNER: February 2024
Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum (LPOM), we are celebrating Black athletes in winter sports. The Olympic values promote unity across communities, countries, and cultures. However, with winter sports in particular, barriers such as access to recreational spaces, costs, and lack of representation can prevent some from participating. While acknowledging these hurdles, we also recognize the perseverance and incredible athleticism of some of the African American athletes who have been a part of Team USA throughout history.

Bobsledding is one winter sport that has helped create opportunities for African Americans at the Winter Games. Starting at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, Team USA has seen several athletes transition from track and field to bobsled. Track and field runners, known for their powerful strength and incredible speed, have been shown to be versatile athletes when transitioning to the role of a pusher in bobsled. USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation start coach Stuart McMillian explains this sport transition in an interview with Today in 2014:

“You can become a world-class push athlete literally within weeks – in fact, the second time that Lauryn [Williams] ever touched a sled, she finished third in the U.S. Push Championships, beating many experienced, and successful, athletes. This is why we are seeing more and more high-level sprinters getting interested in the sport.”

Of course, the transition into the sport is different for each athlete; however, in 1980, USA bobsledders Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley made history while doing so. When they made the Team USA bobsledding team for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Davenport and Gadley became the first African-American participants in the Winter Olympics. Davenport and Gadley both came from successful track and field careers.

After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1965, Willie Davenport won an Olympic gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. He went on to compete at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Canada, where he received the bronze medal in the 110-meter hurdles. Davenport’s success was not just at the Olympic level. He also won five national championships in the indoor 60-yard hurdles. Davenport decided to make the transition into bobsledding when Al Hachigan, a former bobsledder, believed that his strength as a runner would transcend nicely into bobsledding.

Jeff Gadley, from Plattsburgh, N.Y., was training for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the decathlon. Gadley had recently won the first Empire State Games Decathlon, and during his time studying at SUNY Plattsburgh, he set the school record in the outdoor decathlon with 6,577 points in 1977. Similar to Davenport, Al Hachigan recruited Gadley for USA bobsledding.

When it was announced that Davenport and Gadley had made the 1980 bobsled team for Lake Placid, an article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise wrote:

Willie Davenport, first on the left, and Jeff Gadley, second from the right, with their four-man bobsled team at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY. Image provided to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum from the IOC.

“Asked if breaking the Winter Olympics racial barrier was important to him, Davenport said, ‘It’s what inspired me…there’s a myth in this country that blacks can’t make the Winter Olympics. Gadley and I proved you don’t have to be rich or white to make it.”

In 2020, 40 years after the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, Jeff Gadley spoke with NBC about his experience at these Games. Gadley stated that:

“It was a huge story. Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”

Both Davenport’s and Gadley’s support of bringing more diverse athletes into winter sports became a reality as the Olympic Winter Games progressed.

In 1984, Bonnie St. John became the first Black athlete, Olympic or Paralympic, to medal in the Winter Games. At the age of five, her right leg was amputated, and growing up in Southern California, becoming a Paralympic skier may not have seemed the most likely path. However, after being invited on a ski trip by a friend, she tried the sport for the first time. It wasn’t easy to locate equipment made for a one-legged skier, yet she managed to go on that ski trip and excelled at it. St. John eventually attended a prep school in Vermont where she could develop her skiing skills. At the age of 20, she took home one silver medal and two bronze medals from the Paralympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

Four years later, in Calgary in 1988, Debi Thomas became the first Black athlete to medal in figure skating at the Olympic Winter Games. Going into the Games, it was expected to be a battle for first place between Thomas and Katarina Witt of East Germany. They each had independently decided to skate their free program to music from George Bizet’s opera Carmen, and the ensuing competition became referred to as “The Battle of the Carmens.” Witt won the gold medal, while Thomas won the bronze.

Similarly to Gladley and Davenport, Vonetta Flowers transitioned from a successful track and field athlete into a bobsledder. Flowers became Team USA’s first Black Winter Olympic Champion and the first Black athlete from any country to win a gold medal in 2002.

Flowers was a seven-time NCAA All-American in track and field athlete but was unsuccessful in qualifying for Team USA at the Olympic Trials in 1996 and 2000. Despite knowing she would be giving up her dream of representing her country at the Olympics, Flowers was ready to retire

when her husband noticed flyers inviting athletes from the track and field team to try out for bobsledding. She later said that she tried it out as a joke, thinking her friends and family in Alabama would find it funny. Instead, Flowers traveled to Park City, Utah, to train and became a highly-ranked brake woman. In Salt Lake City two years later, Vonetta Flowers finally fulfilled her dream of representing the United States at the Olympics—just not in the sport she initially thought. She and her teammate, Jill Bakken, brought the United States to victory and secured the country’s first medal in bobsledding in 46 years.

As of Beijing 2022, Elana Meyers Taylor, also a bobsledder, is the most decorated Black athlete in Winter Olympic history with five medals. She particularly thanked Vonetta Flowers and all other Black athletes participating in the Winter Games for helping to pave the way for her success.

While history shows the evolution of the Winter Olympics in the last century, progress still needs to be made. To learn more, we encourage you to read the articles below and continue your own research:



Written by Julia Herman