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Shot at gold comes with a price: friendship

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Loyalty or glory? The choice is yours.

Your lifelong dream is heading in one direction and your best friend in the other. So what should you do?

Are you faithful to your friend? Or are you true to yourself?

And are you prepared to live forever with the choice you make?

If you are Jean Racine, the decision is painful. And it is obvious. You let go of friendship and grasp hold of glory.

"I've been on the ice for 10 years," Racine said. "I'm not going to let anything stop me from trying to win a medal."

In Racine's world, the price of gold has gone up. She has paid with her time, she has paid with her sweat. Now, she is paying with her heart.

"Anyone who knows me," Racine said, "would tell you Jean Racine is not a mean person."

If you have been down the cereal aisle in your local grocery store, you might recognize Racine. She is one of the women smiling back at you from the box of Frosted Mini-Wheats. Next to her is partner Jen Davidson.

Together, they were the bobsled dream team for the United States. Young, attractive, personable. For two years running, they were the fastest women in the world. Racine was the driver, Davidson was the pusher/brakeman.

They were courted by Visa. They had a deal with adidas. They put in an appearance at the White House with George Bush. They had identical pierced navels, with tiny American flags.

Beginning as teammates, they soon became partners and gradually grew into best friends. When Racine's mother, Cathleen, died in May, it was Davidson who was there, standing at her friend's side.

Yet in December, two months before the 2002 Games and one week before the Olympic trials, Racine fired her best friend.

She felt Davidson no longer could push her to the top. So Racine, instead, pushed Davidson out the door.

"It was a very hard thing for me to do," Racine said. "There were moments when I thought, "I could just bring my best friend to the Games.' I could do it, but we wouldn't win. It wouldn't be right. So I made the change. And I'm very glad that I did."

It would be easy to portray Racine as a heartless villain. It may even be accurate. But it would not do justice to the choices she was given.

Bobsled is a new sport for women. It is making its Olympic debut on Tuesday. Racine has been there almost from the beginning, switching from luge to bobsled six years ago.

She and Davidson were a step ahead of the rest of the world and it showed in their performances. For two years, they were the top team on the World Cup circuit and corporate America already was envisioning a golden opportunity.

But as the Olympics drew near, the rest of the world caught up. The Germans, in particular, began paying attention to women's bobsled. It wasn't so much that Racine and Davidson were becoming slower, but that everyone else was getting faster. Davidson's push time, in particular, was lagging. "When you're a team used to being at the top of the podium and now you're fourth, fifth, sixth, and even 11th, you have to realize if you don't make a change you could go down," Racine said. "The last race I entered with Jen was a wake-up call. We had the 15th fastest start, two-tenths of a second behind the Germans. I had to question whether I was even going to make the Olympics."

So Racine made a decision. She fired Davidson and hired Gea Johnson away from fellow USA teammate Bonny Warner. A week before the trials, Warner was left without a pusher/brakeman and Davidson was without a job.

"She deceived me the entire season," Davidson said at the time of the trials. "Then she dumps me right before the trials."

This is the crux of the issue:

Was Racine being practical or calculating?

Had she fired Davidson earlier, it could have been written off as an unfortunate result of competition. Like the Corleones in The Godfather, it would have been business, not personal.

But the timing made Racine look cutthroat.

Johnson, a former track athlete, showed up on the bobsled scene last summer. Her work in practice sessions suggested she could be a premier pusher. But her inexperience -- not to mention a failed drug test in her days in track and field -- made her a risk. So Racine watched Johnson from afar and then added her to the team at the last possible moment.

Racine argues that her interest in Johnson grew only after Davidson struggled during the World Cup season. And, by way of vindication, she points out the success she has enjoyed with Johnson since the change.

"We had no data on Gea at the beginning of the year," USA bobsled coach Bill Tavares said. "She competed with Bonny and proved herself. With all the information Jean had at that point, she made a decision.

"I think it was the right decision."

Racine said she understands how Davidson was hurt by the decision. But she said she had hoped they could work out their feelings.

"I never made the choice of the Olympics over friendship," Racine said. "That was not part of the decision, as far as I was concerned. I would do anything to maintain my friendship with Jen. She is the one who has decided to take that away. I would have hoped the friendship meant more to her."

The Olympic bobsled competition for women begins on Tuesday and Davidson and Racine will both be at the track.

Racine will be a favorite for the medal.

Davidson will be one of the forerunners who test the track before the competition begins.

Racine declined to say whether she would try to talk to her old friend.

Loyalty or glory?

The choice is yours.

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