A year from now, the 28-year-old Lake Washington High School grad — and reigning Olympic gold medalist — might find herself back on the medal stand, at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

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Once again, Jill Bakken is going somewhere. And once again, she’s going fast.

Spare her the “downhill” jokes — the stuff you tend to get when your career choice of Olympic bobsled driving involves plunging down an icy mountainside like a greased marble in a rainspout.

A year from now, the 28-year-old Lake Washington High School grad — and reigning Olympic gold medalist — might find herself back on the medal stand, at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

Or perhaps in Iraq, where a lot of other National Guard members, a title Bakken has held for many years, have wound up of late.

Bakken, recall, was one of the great fairy-tale stories of the 2002 Salt Lake Games. The last time most of us saw her, in person or on TV, was on a freezing, clear night in Park City, when Bakken and brakeman Vonetta Flowers made history by sliding to the first women’s bobsled gold medal.

Afterward, much of the focus was on Flowers, who became the first African-American from any nation to win a Winter Games gold medal, a feat that launched her to some post-Games stardom.

Bakken, as all too many Winter Olympic athletes do, just sort of faded into the woodwork.

But that was partially on purpose, she said last week from Calgary, where she competed in the women’s bobsled World Championships over the weekend with a new brakeman and another Seattle-area athlete — Auburn High School grad Amanda Moreley, a former University of Nebraska track athlete.

“I wanted to take some time off,” says Bakken, a former Crystal Mountain and Mount Bachelor ski racer who has struggled with a painful back for much of her sliding career. “A part of it was that my body was shutting down. I thought, maybe if I took a season or two off, I could get it back, have it calm down. I thought maybe I could heal a little bit.”

Last spring, she picked up training again and found that the back problem persists. But it hasn’t gotten worse, and she has learned to manage it.

It’s a day-to-day thing. Sometimes, plummeting down those icy bobsled channels at up to 80 mph is painfree. Others, it’s excruciating. Either way, she figures it’s worth it if she meets her near-term goal: Grabbing one of the two driver’s spots for the 2006 Turin Olympic team, where she could defend her gold medal.

Her military status could get in the way. Bakken is a longtime member of the National Guard, which has its own athletes program. She’s currently attached to the Oregon National Guard, because she recently attended the University of Oregon while living in Eugene.


Jill Bakken took her Olympic gold medal to an assembly in her honor at Lake Washington High School.

With the U.S. still deeply embroiled in Iraq, and military reserves being tapped dry, Bakken, who has one year left in her commitment, knows a call to active duty is always possible.

“There’s always that worry,” she says. “I can’t worry if that happens, though. When I signed up, it’s what I signed up for. I’m not going to sit here every day and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, what if I get called up?’ If I do, I do, and I go.”

Her main job with the Guard: serving as a role model, appearing at schools and before various military groups. She feels like that’s the best service she can provide for the Guard, she says. But she has no idea whether a call-up will come, or when.

Meanwhile, she’s getting her competitive juices flowing once again. Her two-year bobsled layoff — time she spent at the University of Oregon and as a volunteer firefighter — prohibited her from joining teammates on the World Cup bobsled tour earlier this winter. So she and Moreley, a brakeman who partnered last year with Orem, Utah, pilot Shauna Rohbock, competed on the America’s Cup circuit, a junior-level race series.

They quickly jelled as a team, and victories followed: Both were reinstated to the World Cup circuit in January, after earning enough qualifying points.

Since then, they’ve been riding with different teammates and racing to catch up with Team USA’s top duo — Flowers and her new driver, Jean Racine, who burst into the news before the Salt Lake Games by ditching her longtime brakeman, Jen Davidson, just before the Olympics. That duo ranked second in the world last season.

Bakken said she’s happy with her current sled partner and doesn’t begrudge her medal-winning brakeman, Flowers, for teaming up with Racine, once again the top U.S. driver heading into another Olympic cycle. When Flowers reentered the sport after giving birth to twin sons, Bakken wasn’t back on the ice yet.

The final decision on sled partners currently rests with team coaches, but the rules are in flux and might change by next season, Bakken says.

She chuckles when she’s reminded of the drama associated with who rides with whom among the nine-member women’s bobsled team.

“I don’t particularly like it (swapping teammates),” she says. “We do try to limit the drama. But it’s inevitable. I’m sure there will be drama next year, either way. When it happens, you deal with it and move on.”

Right now, she’s happy with Moreley, 24, who, like many brakemen, was recruited by U.S. coaches off a collegiate track. A sprinter, hurdler and basketball player at Auburn, Moreley was a hammer thrower in college. Coaches were impressed with her combination of upper- and lower-body strength — crucial parts for the human engine behind the bobsled at the starting box.

She attended a training camp at Lake Placid, N.Y., and picked up the sport quickly, although she concedes her first time down the track was daunting. And sometimes it still is.

As a brakeman, “You don’t have any control,” she says, laughing. “I pray a lot.”

Crashes are fairly rare, but they happen. Moreley’s first came on the track at St. Moritz, Switzerland, last season. She left some of her blood and hair on the track, but wasn’t seriously injured.

Moreley suffered a hamstring injury early this season, and she wound up coming back into form just as Bakken was seeking a brakeman. They bonded a bit on the America’s Cup circuit.

Both were happy to get back on the World Cup, conducted largely in Europe. Last season was the first visit there for Moreley, who fell in love with bobsled-track villages and European culture.

This in spite of feeling like something of an oddity, she notes. African-American athletes are a rarity in winter sports. Female African-American athletes are even rarer.

“They do sort of look at me,” she says, laughing. “There’s not many black people over there.”

She says she’s just glad to have a chance to chase her dream — an Olympic medal — even if in a sport she could not have envisioned.

“It’s still my dream,” she says, noting that she always envisioned earning that medal in a hot place, on a track. “I’ve just sort of changed climates.”

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at rjudd@seattletimes.com.