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Long Road Back A bitter Olympic loss and a slew of personal problems couldn't stop Jean Racine from returning

One morning in early November, Jean Racine climbed a steep hill
and peered out at the site of her Olympic disappointment. The
two-time world champion walked halfway up the outside of the
bobsled run in Park City, Utah, and looked at the track for the
first time since finishing a disheartening fifth at the Salt Lake
City Games last February. "I disappeared this summer to reflect
on things," says the 24-year-old Racine, "but the coaches kept
calling me, saying, 'Come back, we need you.' After what I'd been
through, I had to think about it."

But just when many figured she would retire, Racine decided to
return. In late November in Calgary, at the first World Cup race
this season, she finished third and reemerged as the U.S.'s best

Her disappointing finish at the 2002 Games was only part of the
reason she pulled back from the sport. In May 2001, Racine lost
her mother, Cathy, to scleroderma, a lupus-related
connective-tissue disease that has no cure. Then this past
October, Jean's father, David, was sentenced to one year in jail
for fondling a classmate of Jean's 13year-old sister, Jessica,
while the girl slept at the Racine house in Waterford, Mich.,
last year.

To try to forget her problems, Racine, an amateur singer in high
school, recorded three demo songs for a pop--country music CD she
hopes will attract the interest of a record company. She was
leery of returning to the sport that had celebrated and then
battered her. With longtime brakeman Jen Davidson, Racine had
earned top three finishes in 21 straight World Cup races between
1998 and 2001. Racine and Davidson had been marketed as the
Bobsled Girls, and in the quadrennium before the women's version
of the sport made its Olympic debut, Racine had earned $500,000
in endorsements. Before the '01--02 season, however, Davidson
injured her knee, and the duo's performances fell off. In
December '01, at the urging of the U.S. coaching staff, Racine
replaced Davidson with Gea Johnson, a seeming act of betrayal
that brought Racine criticism from both Davidson and the media.
Racine might not have been publicly tarred if U.S. coaches had
made it clear that such moves are commonplace in bobsledding and
that they had recommended the change. "At the time," Racine says,
"I think the coaches were afraid to step to the plate and share
the heat." The Olympic results, of course, were disastrous for
Racine and Johnson (who was slowed by a hamstring injury), as
less heralded teammates Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers won the
gold medal.

The Racine family had hoped that Cathy would live long enough to
see her daughter compete in Salt Lake City. Cathy's sister, Linda
Paul, donated part of her kidney to Cathy a month before she
passed away. While Jean has neither lupus nor scleroderma, her
grandmother Helen Paul, who died of cancer last March, had lupus,
as does Jessica. Last spring Jean joined other Olympians as
celebrity guests on the Weakest Link and donated $38,500 in
winnings to the Scleroderma Foundation. "I was invited along with
the [U.S.] gold medalists," Racine says, "so that Anne Robinson
[the show's irreverent host] could take shots at me." During the
program, when Robinson called Racine "Mean Jean," the bobsledder
quick-wittedly asked Robinson if colleagues really called her
"Evil Incarnate."

Racine says she now finds the bobsled track to be a sanctuary.
"I'd forgotten how exciting it was to feel the sleds fly past
you," she says. At that World Cup race in November she performed
well with new brakeman Gina Bundy. But Bundy has since switched
to driving, forcing Racine to find a new partner. That person
will be Flowers, who will team with Racine this week at a World
Cup event in Austria.

"She's taking an emotional risk by coming back and putting
herself out there," Paul Stein, a family friend, says of Racine.
"People bashed her because it made a good story, but she has what
it takes to be a good, resilient soul." That would be a
bobsledder's knack for staying on course when things seem to be
sliding out of control.

COLOR PHOTO: NANCIE BATTAGLIA SLIPPERY SLOPE After dumping partner Davidson for Johnson (inset, back) at the 2002 Games, Racine failed to win a medal.



Where Are They Now?

In the year since the Olympics, the other top U.S. women
bobsledders have largely faded from the scene

Jill Bakken
The 2002 gold medalist has not returned to competition since a
back injury flared up over the summer. She has been rehabbing in
Lake Placid, N.Y.

Jen Davidson
Now an exercise physiologist at McKay-Dee hospital in Ogden, Utah,
she's unsure if she will return to the sport.

Vonetta Flowers
First African-American to win Winter Olympic gold gave birth to
twins; she'll brake for Racine at this week's competition.