- Lindsay Berra
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CESANA, Italy -- The Olympic bobsled track at Cesana Pariol has not been kind to Todd Hays.
Hays, the driver of USA-1, nearly lost his right foot at the start of a World Cup event here last January when it got caught under the runner of his sled. He finished the run with his shoe ripped open, blood dripping from his nearly dismembered pinky toe. Hays was ambulanced out of Cesana and needed 47 stitches to close the wound, but miraculously escaped with no broken bones or torn ligaments.
Heading into the Torino Games, Hays was favored to medal in both the two-man and four-man events. He finished seventh in the two-man after receiving the third-best push times of the competition. Then, Saturday night, Hays finished seventh in the four-man, as well, 1.02 seconds behind Andre Lange and the blistering Germany-1 sled and eight-tenths of a second behind sixth-place driver Steven Holcomb and USA-2.
"I'm pretty upset with this track. It's been rough on me," said Hays, who thought he didn't spend enough time at Cesana Pariol to figure out the nuances of the track. "It has a really strange rhythm. Some curves you have to drive much harder than you think and some you have to let it fly. My biggest strength in bobsled is that I wasn't afraid to let the sled go and that strength hurt me here. I let the sled go when I should have been driving and drove when I should have been letting the sled go."
"They gave me all they had at the start," Hays said. "No one prepared harder than they did. They trained their guts out and I couldn't be prouder. The old driver just couldn't figure out the track."
The "old driver," now 36, announced Friday night after the first two heats of the four-man event that he was to retire from bobsledding. At the time, Hays' USA-1 was sitting in sixth place, an unrecoverable .49 seconds off the lead.
Hays' retirement closes yet another chapter in his versatile athletic career.
Like every good Texan, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder played football. As a senior lineman at the University of Tulsa in 1991, he captained the Golden Hurricanes to a Freedom Bowl victory over Marshall Faulk and San Diego State. In 1993, he was the U.S. kickboxing champion. In 1994, he burst onto the bobsled scene when the U.S. team held tryouts near San Antonio. To earn some fast cash for his own sled, Hays accepted an invite to the 1995 Vale Tudo fighting championships in Tokyo and used the $10,000 purse to buy his first ride. By 1998, he was an alternate driver for the Nagano Games. In Salt Lake City, Hays won silver in the four-man event, snapping a 46-year medal drought for the U.S. men's team.
Now Hays, armed with 12 years of athletic experience of another kind, hopes to once again swap his bobsled spikes for football cleats. But this time, he wants to coach.
"I'm from south Texas, so football's my game," he said. "That's what I planned on doing before this crazy bobsled came along. This is a new beginning for me, not an end. You have a limited time as an athlete. As a coach, I'll have a lot more years to get it done."
His message to would-be employers?
"Do it for your country. Hire this poor, starving Olympian and you'll win a national title."
Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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