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Pioneers of the Ice

An Olympic bobsledder tells her story in North Liberty
The silver and bronze World Championship medals of Olympic bobsledder Jean Prahm. Along with a bobsled runner used at the 2002 Winter Olympics, helmet and spiked athletic shoe, these pieces were shared with attendees of her Q&A session held at the North Liberty CoLab on Wednesday, Jan. 31. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– Feb. 8, 2002, in Salt Lake City. The opening ceremony for the XIX Olympic Winter Games had commenced to an enthusiastic crowd in the Rice-Eccles Stadium. And for the first time since 1932, the highest global institution in all of athletics was about to host two-woman bobsledding. Amidst all the pomp and festivities was a Midwestern girl named Jean, who helped pave the way for what was about to happen.
On the evening of Jan. 31, at the North Liberty CoLab, locals were treated to a talk and Q&A with Olympic bobsledder, World Cup Champion, two-time World Championship silver medalist and North Liberty resident, Jean Prahm. The world-class athlete offered her story, from humble beginnings in Michigan to the grandest stage in winter sports, describing her experiences and the persistence needed to serve as an agent of change in the world of athletics.
It all began in 1992 with an article her parents spotted in the newspaper.
A learn-to-luge clinic seeking teen athletes was coming to town, and a 13 year-old Jean Prahm, born Jean Racine of Waterford, Mich., was eager to try out the sport.
“After I had my first trip down, I was in love,” she said.
A month later, she received a package from USA Luge, inviting her to Lake Placid, N.Y., for a two-week introduction.
“I saw this sled come flying by over my head just blazing fast, and my heart about stopped,” she recalled of her first impression. “I like crazy, but this is really crazy.”
But the young athlete quickly embraced its fast pace and was soon offered a spot on the U.S. Junior Development team. Before she knew it, Prahm was spending the coldest part of the year racing around the globe.
“All throughout high school, I would actually travel in the winters to various tracks all over the world and race on the Junior World Cup circuit, so it was a pretty exciting time,” she said.
“My senior year in high school there was like 160 days of school,” Prahm added. “I had over 115 absences.”
With her ranking quickly elevating in the sport of luge, it wasn’t until her last year in the junior program that a teenage Prahm encountered a team of female bobsledders.

“It wasn’t an Olympic sport for women, so those who were competing in the sport weren’t doing it because they got paid a lot of money or because it was really exciting to get famous doing it,” she explained. “These women were racing in the sport purely for the joy, for the love of it. As a senior in high school, that really appealed to me.”
The next summer, she acquired her license and joined the bobsled team. But this group of athletes envisioned greater aspirations for their league, praying for it to become an Olympic discipline in the near future.
“But we did more than that,” she asserted. “We actually fought.”
Prahm’s team saw no logical reason why women weren’t competing on an Olympic level in the sport and began digging for answers beyond the long-held idea that bobsledding was simply too dangerous a sport for their gender. Through research, they learned bobsledding was at one time a coed sport in which men and women would commonly ride together. As history would have it, in 1940, Katherine Dewey– daughter of Melvil Dewey, originator of the Dewey Decimal System used in libraries the world over– drove the sled that won the U.S. national 4-man championships. It would be the last time women raced.
“I thought that was pretty timely,” Prahm remarked.
“We weren’t the only nation that had a bobsled team. It turned out there were quite a few nations that had women’s teams who weren’t well funded, certainly not well supported by their nation, but regardless were involved in the sport and loved it,” she said.
They started working with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee to find out what obstacles they needed to overcome to get to the Olympics. The biggest barrier, Prahm explained, was the number of nations competing and the number of continents where nations were competing.
“So we started helping other countries. We knew that there were other teams that existed that weren’t regularly attending World Cup races, and their reasons were largely funding, resources,” Prahm said. “They had a team, they had a sled but maybe they couldn’t afford to have a mechanic on tour with them; they couldn’t afford to have someone to logistically arrange everything for them.”
The U.S. team made an effort to offer resources to other countries as a means of bolstering the sport’s standing, helping nations from all over the world, including Australia, Poland, New Zealand and Jamaica.
“There were several years where we probably had three or four nations in the same hotel with us, sharing our ice time,” Prahm recalled. “We would give them our equipment if they needed. And so it was really an international partnership to make that all happen.”
“We knew we were onto something,” she said. “We were breaking down barriers in the sport of bobsled, but we really needed help at an executive level.”
Those allies came in the likes of Anita DeFrantz of the International Olympic Committee; Albert II, Prince of Monaco, a bobsled pilot; and Mitt Romney, the CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games of 2002.
“He loved what we were doing; he was so supportive throughout the whole process. And then he gave us a call to say, ‘Just so you know, you guys are going to the Olympics in 2002,’” Prahm recalled of Romney.
After what felt like a trudging, uphill battle in which the team barely managed to pay for touring and equipment, their efforts suddenly experienced a radical payoff, and the young Midwestern athlete began receiving phone calls from people offering to be her agent.
“At that point, I think I had medaled in 22 consecutive World Cup races,” she recounted. “So we were certainly on a winning path, and sponsors and companies who support the Olympic movement latched onto the fact that we were the new female sport in the upcoming games.”
Soon Prahm and her teammate, Gea Johnson, became a familiar face in U.S. households, appearing in a memorable TV commercial for Visa and interviewing with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Heading into the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, they were the gold medal favorites.
“I can not even put into words what that felt like walking into the opening ceremonies and just feeling the weight of what the Olympic movement truly stands for. It really made me realize how lucky I was to be part of something so much bigger than I am,” she said. “That whole journey was still, I feel, slightly unbelievable.”
The gold would indeed be won by the U.S. in women’s first Olympic bobsledding event in decades, but not at the hands of Prahm and Johnson.
On their first day of training, Johnson tore her hamstring. And in their first year as an Olympic sport, they had not been allotted a team alternate as was commonplace in men’s bobsledding.
“Our options became, you can race with an injury and you can say that you competed at the games, or you can withdraw and not race,” Prahm said.
“We did not go that far to give up and not race in this event, and so we raced.”
With a limp at the start, the women pulled through and took fifth place. An injury may have spoiled their expectations, but Prahm came to realize the real achievement was already in hand both in the name of their sport and on a personal level.
“While there were a lot of tears that came in the days following, not winning that medal, it helped me understand that it’s really not about the medals,” she reflected. “It was about that journey that took me to that point in my life.”
While training for the next Olympic games, Prahm suffered another setback in two herniated discs. But she carried on, winning a bronze medal in the World Championships circuit. Having helped opened the door to female athletes, she witnessed the sport of bobsledding grow and competition increase in the coming years. During this time, she met her future husband, Brian Prahm of North Liberty, with whom she would have two children. She competed in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino knowing it would likely be her last event.
“It was really awesome to race in the Olympics and to really be a part of something that was transformative in the Olympic movement,” she said. “To be a part of that journey and that change, it was really exciting; it was really a privilege.”
Since retiring from competition, Prahm was offered a position on the team’s election committee, which she served on for six years.
“I just saw this as a great way for me to stay connected and continue to be involved in the sport and that whole movement,” she said of the new role.
Prahm was then immediately offered a position on the USA Bobsled & Skeleton Board of Directors, which she has been on for about two years.
To go from such a humble Midwestern background to participating on a global stage of athletics, Prahm says that at the end of the day, she’s satisfied with the life and lessons she was so privilege to experience through her sport.
“I love everything that bobsled gave to me,” the world-class athlete resolved. “I learned ambition, drive, fortitude. I certainly dealt with my share of adversities, and I feel like I came out of all those with not only amazing experiences but a stronger person for it.”