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Laying the foundation

No early medal for Hays, but stage set for success

Posted: Sunday February 19, 2006 5:21PM; Updated: Monday February 20, 2006 1:14PM
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Todd Hays
Todd Hays lead the USA 1 bobsled to a respectable seventh-place finish.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

TURIN, Italy -- Last Friday morning, driver Todd Hays was standing near the finish line of the Olympic bobsled track in Cesana Pariol, pondering why he felt so much better about his chances in the upcoming four-man competition than in the two-man, which was to start the next day.

"My Texas roots make me better in the Cadillac," he said. "But hopefully I can find some speed in this little Porsche."

Those Texas roots have made him one of the unlikeliest medalists in recent U.S. Olympic history. Hays grew up playing football in tiny Del Rio, Texas, an area of the world not known for its ice. He eventually found bobsledding after his football and kickboxing careers -- he won a national title in the latter -- and in 2002 he came up just short in his quest to become the first U.S. driver since 1948 to win a gold medal in the sport when he took a silver in the four-man. In Turin, he was able to find some speed in the small sled -- he and brakeman Pavle Jovanovic finished a respectable seventh in the two-man.

They might have had a shot at a medal, but Hays took a calculated risk in Saturday's runs that backfired. All week long, the ice temperatures had been around -10 degrees Celsius. Saturday was a little warmer, but 30 minutes before the race, when Hays had to decide which runners to put on his sled, he decided to stick with his thinner, cold-weather runners. "I hoped [the ice temperature] was going to fall," he said. "It didn't."

Running the first heat on ice that was around -3 degrees Celsius, Hays could do no better than seventh, despite the fact that he and Jovanovic had the fourth-best push time.

"It was a gamble," he said. "It was my fault." (The mea culpa was a nice touch, because if Hays had kept his yap shut, chances are not many people would have criticized him. This is a guy who, after all, paid for his first sled with money he won in an ultimate fighting tournament. Guys like that can do whatever they want and it's fine by most of us.)

Hays atoned on the second run, after the sun had set and the ice had cooled and hardened a bit. He and Jovanovic were third fastest, even though they were slower at the start than in their first heat -- a sign that Hays did a nice job steering the bob.

On Sunday night in heavy snow, Hays and Jovanovic were strong, but they were no match for the gold medal team of driver Andre Lange and brakeman Kevin Kuske, who won by .21 of a second -- though at times it seemed as if the Germans were just toying with the competition. After throwing up the fastest time by .26 of a second in the first run, Kuske nearly wiped out hopping into the sled after the push on the second run.

"That would have caused every other driver to fall to 15th place," Hays said as he watched on a video screen near the finish. Lange had only the seventh fastest time at the first interval but somehow recovered to put up the fourth fastest time of the run by the end. That performance did little to discredit the story in a German newspaper that morning accusing the team of illegally treating their runners with an anti-friction agent. (As of Sunday, the International Bobsled Federation had yet to comment on the allegation.)

Hays was typically gracious in defeat, dismissing talk that the Germans needed to cheat to win and saying they deserved their medals. Then he turned his attention to this weekend's competition. "I've been fast in the four-man, and I'm hoping we can pull it off this week," he said. He'll take into that race the same attitude he carried in the two-man: Go for the win. His performance in Salt Lake gives him that luxury.

"I'm already a silver medalist, and I'm trying to shoot for gold," he said. "I'm going to be shooting for it next week."