Spotlight on Todd Hays

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Todd Hays has fought tougher opponents than the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the group that shut down one of the main engines on his four-man bobsled.

Hays, the driver of America's top two- and four-man sleds, vented his rage last week after Pavle Jovanovic, one of Hays' "pushers", was thrown out of the Olympics for using banned substances, compounds Hays insists are available in everyday items from protein bars to sports drinks.

The anti-doping people might not want to push this guy too far.

After all, this tough refugee from the Mexican border town of Del Rio, Texas earned the down payment on his first bobsled, $10,000, by essentially choking a Japanese wrestler into submission at an international freestyle fighting tournament.

Hays is the only U.S. Olympian to have tackled Marshall Faulk -- "Though I missed him more than I got him,'' he admits -- in his capacity as a linebacker for the University of Tulsa. He's got the mentality of a Texas quarterback, the disposition of Toughman Butter Bean and a friend ally in NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, whose engineers and design team helped developed Hays' sled.

He's also got something in common these days with Michelle Kwan, as both are legitimate gold medal candidates. If, that is, the stuffed shirts don't get in his way.

Hays' story reads like a Dan Jenkins novel and has more twists and turns than the World Cup course at St. Moritz, where Hays recently piloted the first victorious American sled since 1959.

Come Saturday, Hays will drive the world's No. 1 ranked sled in the two-man event at Utah Olympic Park. Between that sled and his four-man group, there is hope that a 46-year medal drought for the U.S. in Olympic bobsled competition could end in Salt Lake.

Quite a trip for a guy who never saw snow until his freshman year in a town along the Rio Grande River.

"It was quite an occasion,'' Hays recalled. "They closed school and we played in a couple inches of snow like we were in the Swiss Alps.''

But snow sports weren't going to be Hays' ticket out of Del Rio. Football and fighting were.

"Del Rio is a border town, and a pretty tough one,'' he noted. "As a child I developed an interest in the martial arts, probably to protect myself.''

Hays took up Thai kick-boxing and got so good that a Tulsa man, a world champion martial artist, told him he could probably make money at it. But Hays put off that prospect until after he'd became more heavily involved in bobsledding.

The U.S. Bobsled Federation had come to San Antonio looking for men with size, strength and speed to serve as pushers, the human engines who can make the difference between victory and defeat when pushing a 600-pound sled over the first 50 meters of ice. Sprinters such as NFL players Hershel Walker and Willie Gault proved quite adept at it. So did Todd Hays.

Ultimately though, Hays wanted to pick his own team, which meant he first had to buy a sled. The lure of a $10,000 first prize brought him to the 1995 World Freestyle Fighting Championships in Japan.

"Basically, that means anything goes, ''Hays explained. "You use whatever martial arts discipline you like to force a guy into submission.'' Fighting the unbeaten Japanese favorite - a Greco-Roman wrestler - before some 20,000 of his fans, Hays locked the local hero in a guillotine hold and basically choked him until he gave up.

"It sounds horrible,'' he admits, "but no one got hurt.''

Long story short, Hays spent that prize money on his first European-built sled. But he ultimately grew suspicious of what he considered second-line equipment.

"They might sell you a Porsche,'' he noted of the European designers, "but they save the GT for their own teams.'' In time, Hays hooked up with Bodine, who believed the designers on his NASCAR race team could build a better bobsled using the same aerodynamic principles they applied to auto racing.

Whether they are successful will be determined in Park City in the next seven days.

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