Before he got beat up on a routine basis, before he played
linebacker for Tulsa, before he pissed off thousands of Japanese
and waaaaay before he emerged as America's brightest hope to end
a 46-year medal drought in Olympic bobsledding, Todd Hays was a
little kid in Del Rio, Texas, mesmerized by the images on his
television set. They were red, white and blue, and thrilling:
U.S. athletes performing heroically at the Winter Olympics, then
wearing medals at the playing of the national anthem. His
"I was sucked in," says Hays, 32, who saw snow only twice as a
child. "The greatest achievement in sports is winning that medal.
You represent your country, and you're the best in the world."
More than most other athletes, Hays, the driver on America's top
two-man and four-man bobsleds, knows how winding--and
strange--the path to the Olympics can be. As a boy in Del Rio, a
tough town on the Mexican border, Hays spent many an afternoon
receiving fist-to-head treatment from his peers. As a result his
father, Jack, signed him up for martial-arts training. Later
Todd emerged as one of the area's top football players; he
received a scholarship to Tulsa, which, in 1991, he helped lead
to victory over San Diego State in the Freedom Bowl. By then
Hays excelled at two sports. He had won many mid-level
kickboxing tournaments, and he earned a tryout with the Toronto
Argonauts of the CFL.
After Toronto cut him, a dejected Hays returned to Del Rio and
continued to kickbox, winning a national title in 1993. Then, in
'94, his brother Lee learned from a TV ad that the U.S. bobsled
federation was holding tryouts in nearby San Antonio. "They need
big, fast guys," Lee said. "You're going."
Todd, who's 6'3" and weighs 235, knew little of the sport, but
he dominated the six-step speed-strength test. He became the
pusher on America's No. 3 four-man sled. "Pretty quickly I
realized I wasn't athletic enough to go far as a pusher," says
Hays. "Those guys are athletic freaks. If I wanted an Olympic
future, I had to drive."
One problem: To become a serious driver, he needed to practice
on a serious sled, and those cost about $10,000 apiece. Enter
luck. In April 1995 a kickboxing promoter called and asked if
Hays would be interested in flying to Tokyo to take on Koichiro
Kimura, the undefeated Japanese ultimate-fighting champion.
Although Hays's experience in the sport was minimal, the
appearance fee was...$10,000. Hays didn't only appear. He also
beat Kimura in front of 60,000 bloodthirsty fans.
Ever since then, Hays has soared. He made the 1998 Winter Games
as an alternate and is now the face of U.S. bobsledding. Last
season he ranked fifth in the combined (two-man and four-man)
World Cup standings, and his teams recently won four straight
World Cup races. For the first time in memory, the U.S. has
beaten Germany, Austria and Italy, the kings of the sport.
"The best thing that happened to me was being cut by Toronto and
then finding bobsledding," Hays says. "If I can chase down my
Olympic dream, I'll be able to live the rest of my life content."
COLOR PHOTO: NANCIE BATTAGLIA