He has won a martial arts match in a stadium where everyone wanted him to lose, and helped lead his college football team to the Freedom Bowl championship in 1991. But American bobsledder Todd Hays has a goal he has not reached in sports - winning an Olympic medal. VOA's David Byrd has this look at Hays, who has become a leading U.S. hope for a medal in both two and four man bobsled at the Salt Lake City games.
Todd Hays comes from the Southern Texas border town of Del Rio, which he describes as a rough town where he had to use his martial arts skills to protect himself. But while he was reluctant to use them, his fighting skills would hold the key to his destiny and his Olympic dreams.
Hays played American football at Cisco Junior College in Texas, and later at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. He moved from quarterback to linebacker, and was captain of the football team his senior season.
Hays led Tulsa to the 1991 Freedom Bowl over San Diego State, which featured Marshall Faulk, an eventual NFL Most Valuable Player.
His college success led Hays to the Canadian Football League, but he was cut by the Toronto Argonauts and returned to Texas. It was there that his brother Lee suggested Todd try out for a U.S. bobsled recruiting program in neighboring San Antonio. After being put through a battery of tests, Hays won the tryout, and his next stop was Lake Placid, New York, where he qualified for the U.S. national team.
But bobsledding is an expensive sport, and while Hays was long on enthusiasm, he was short on money. That's where his fighting skills came in. A U.S. kickboxing champion in 1993, Hays attended an invitational tournament in Japan in 1995, where he had to face Japanese wrestling champion Koichiro Komura in his first round bout. In front of 20,000 partisan Japanese fans, Hays won the match, and earned $10,000 - enough to buy his first sled.
Two months after earning a berth on the U.S. national bobsled team, Hays was competing on the World Cup circuit, and was a driver by the 1997-98 season. He returned to Japan for the 1998 Olympics as a team alternate, after one of his teammates tested positive for a banned drug (ephedrine) and his sled was suspended.
As part of the U.S. team, Hays receives help from another driver familiar with high speeds - NASCAR stock car driver Geoff Bodine. The Winston Cup driver helped to design and build the sleds used by all U.S. teams. Bodine says he wanted to get involved with the U.S. team after watching the Americans struggle at the 1992 Olympics in France. Hays says the NASCAR racer's expertise has been irreplaceable.
"That is huge. Technical advantage, the chassis, the aerodynamics, the actual suspension set-up," he explains. "That is crucial to speed sports. The Bodines knew they had a lot of experience in it, and they decided they wanted to help us. And they thought they could build a better sled, and that's what they have done. They have built a great sled."
Geoff Bodine told VOA Sports that he and his brother Brett saw how the U.S. team struggled in 1992, and knew they could help the Americans. Bodine says a trip to Lake Placid ,and the knowledge that the U.S. team was buying its equipment from foreign manufacturers, compelled him to do something.
"If you have to buy your equipment from the competition, they are not going to sell you their best stuff. Plus, I looked at what they had, and it was pretty shabby workmanship," he said. "And, right away, I knew it was not very good stuff. I knew the equipment was the problem. It was not the athlete's training or ability; it was the equipment was why they were not doing very well."
Geoff Bodine and his team set to work and eventually came up with the sleds used by all the U.S. team members - the Bo-Dyn sled. Hays says that having the right equipment has made a huge difference in his ability to compete against strong teams from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
"You know they have brought in a lot of their contacts. Chassis, fiberglass, steels, they brought a lot of that in, and hopefully we can, with their help, start catching up with the Swiss and the Germans, and sneak away with a medal here," says Hays.
Geoff Bodine says that the American sleds have turned out so well, they are now the envy of the very nations that used to sell the U.S. team their surplus equipment. Bodine says the U.S. men keep their specially designed sleds a closely guarded trade secret.
"We do not let them out. Nobody takes them home with them. Nobody takes them to Europe without our supervision. We send technicians and mechanics with the bobsleds to maintain them. And we lock them up. We keep our eye on them, because we do not want the Europeans to get a hold of our technology, and start using it against us," he says.
Bodine is thrilled with how well Todd Hays has performed in the bobsled World Cup this season, with numerous podium finishes.
The sleds he drives have won four races so far - in Lake Placid, New York, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Igls, Austria and San Moritz, Switzerland. He's also finished second four times. His most recent victory was January 13 at a World Cup four-man competition in San Mortiz, where he beat the Swiss and German teams.
No U.S. bobsled team has been on an Olympic podium in 46 years. The goal for Hays is to end that streak and come away with a medal in front of home country fans in Salt Lake City. When he makes his runs for Olympic gold, Todd Hays will have one fan watching and cheering probably harder than most - Geoff Bodine plans to attend the Salt Lake Games to cheer on the American team.