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Red, white, no blue: Gold medalist Bakken moves on

Jill Bakken's golden moment remains frozen in time.

On an icy track in Park City, Utah, nearly eight years ago, the former National Guard member hopped into her bobsled — painted red, with white Olympic rings and blue U-S-A across the chassis — and teamed with Vonetta Flowers to bring a gold medal home.

Talk about a perfect tale. A United States soldier, no less, having her national anthem blare in her homeland, in her honor.

"The moment, I'll always remember," Bakken said.

This February in Vancouver, Bakken's help could lead someone else to an unforgettable Olympic moment.

Only it won't be an American.

Bakken spent part of this Olympic cycle coaching Canadian bobsled hopefuls, who'll spend the Vancouver Games trying to beat Americans and everybody else down their new home track. She resigned from the position earlier this year, several months before her contract with Bobsleigh Canada was to expire, citing the demands of travel and hopes of changing her career.

Now she's coaching younger sliders at the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler, British Columbia.

"I loved competing for the U.S.," Bakken said. "But as a coach, it's different, because you go where there's a job. You go where someone needs you. There's a lot of coaches that coach different nations all the time. One year they'll be coaching one nation, one year a completely different nation. That's just kind of the way it is. It's not unusual."

In sliding especially, it is absolutely not unusual.

Canada's head bobsled coach these days is Tuffy Latour, who was an American coach when Bakken won her gold medal — and, like Bakken, served the United States through the National Guard. Tristan Gale, who was the 2002 women's skeleton gold medalist for the U.S., is now working with a French men's slider who'll likely be in the Olympics.

USA Luge has even seen an athlete change colors, with Bengt Walden, a 2002 Olympian for Sweden, now set to slide at Vancouver for the U.S. after marrying an American luge competitor.

There's countless other examples as well.

Pride in country is one thing, but the need for work is powerful, too.

"I got married to a Canadian, and everything fell into place for me coaching for Canada at that time," Bakken said.

Bakken is from Seattle, and now calls Calgary home. The 2002 Olympic triumph was, by far, the highlight of her career driving bobsleds. Despite chronic back pain and other injuries, Bakken made a strong but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to race for the U.S. in 2006 at the Turin Games, then quickly settled into retirement and a new life in Canada.

The lure of bobsledding just wouldn't go away, so coaching became her outlet.

"An athlete's an athlete, and it was just a new group of athletes who wanted to learn," Bakken said. "I didn't know them. I didn't know their personalities. I just got to know them as athletes, but it wasn't really hard from trying to transition from country to country."

Her next transition will be considerably harder.

Though she still loves bobsledding, Bakken's new passion is to begin a career in animal rehabilitation.

"It's a difficult field, I'm finding," Bakken said. "I don't know if I'm going to go back to school to get more education so I can find an actual paying job, because a lot of that is volunteer work. So that's the difficult part, what I love doesn't pay anything, and that's hard to sort of manage."

There's also another item on her to-do list.

Bakken and her husband, former Canadian athlete and current coach Florian Linder, want to start a family. And that's one of the major reasons why Bakken stepped down from her role with the Canadian national team, because the demands of trying to start a family juggled alongside six months of travel all over the globe simply seemed too daunting.

She has her gold medal, and plenty of memories from representing the U.S. through both sport and the military. But time marches on, her path took her to Canada, and she has absolutely no regrets with the way anything worked out.

"I miss race day and the competition," Bakken said. "But I don't miss everything else that comes along with it. My injuries made it not worth continuing if I wanted to have a normal life. And now I do."


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