Tuesday December 15th, 2009

Illustrious has been the career of 40-year-old U.S. bobsled veteran Todd Hays, one of the sport's great drivers. But after crashing his four-man sled during a training run in Winterberg, Germany last Wednesday, Hays emerged with dizzy spells, a condition Hays hoped indicated nothing more than a mild concussion. But after undergoing an MRI upon returning to the U.S. team's training center in Lake Placid, doctors have advised Hays to retire.

In 2002, Hays cemented his place in history by piloting the U.S. four-man sled (with Randy Jones, Bill Schuffenhauer and Garrett Hines) to the country's first medal at the Olympics since 1956. Hays actually led that competition after two runs, but dropped to third and then moved to second on the final run, ahead of teammate Brian Shimer on the medal stand.

He had always been a dedicated Olympian with a decidedly atypical winter-Olympian's background. For starters, he was from Texas, a fine place to put ice in tea, but not on bob tracks. He played linebacker at Tulsa and then won a handful of ultimate fighting competitions overseas before the sport had truly caught on. He parlayed his strength and sprinting speed into a bobsled career in 1994, when he attended a skills session in San Antonio on a whim. He used money he had won at a fighting competition in Japan to purchase his first sled and became an alternate on the 1998 Olympic team.

Even after he rose up the U.S. Olympic tree toward the success of '02, the ultimate fighter never lost his edge. In '05, Hays was competing in Cesana Pariol, Italy, when he lost his footing while pushing the sled and actually drove the sharp-edged rudders of the vehicle over his right foot. He finished the run and said he felt fortunate not to have sliced off any toes. After his initial treatment he needed more surgery later after the wounds became infected.

After placing seventh in both the two- and four-man events four years ago at the Turin Games, Hays figured his career was at an end. Dabbling in football coaching at Baylor, Hays, though, found he missed the 80-plus-mile-an-hour thrill of bobsledding. He was back in form this year in Park City, where he placed second in the two-man competition with Steve Langdon before sustaining the injury in Winterberg.

U.S. moguls skiers enjoyed a good weekend in Suomu, Finland, improving qualification hopes for three athletes who need podium in World-Cup events to help them secure Olympic berths. Hannah Kearney won the women's event for her second podium place. Bryon Wilson earned his second podium with a silver medal and Nate Roberts boosted his comeback aspirations with a bronze, his first international medal in two years after a lengthy recovery from a knee injury.

It's a second straight bounce-back season for Kearney, who tore her ACL in February 2007, missing the rest of that campaign and a chunk of the next one. Both Kearney and Roberts entered the Olympic season in 2006 as world champions. Roberts failed to make the team. Kearney went to Turin, stumbled badly after her first jump and failed to advance to the Olympic final.

The IOC proposed six new members into its ranks last week and -- surprise -- the new group did not include anyone from the U.S. The country has just two people on the IOC: Anita DeFrantz, 57, and Jim Easton, 74. U.S. fortunes have fallen dramatically over the past few years. Chicago was trounced in its bid to host the '16 Olympics, going out in the first round of voting in October in a year when tensions between the IOC and USOC ran high.

The IOC will grow to 112 members and the new group will include Prince Faisal bin Al-Hussein, the President of the Jordanian Olympic Committee; Barry John Maister, a former field hockey star from New Zealand; International Cycling Union President Patrick McQuaid of Ireland; Dagmawit Girmay Birhane, the General Secretary of the Ethiopian Olympic Committee; Spain's Maria Soledad Casado, the head of the International Triathlon Union; and Chinese speedskating star Yang Yang, who was elected as an active (i.e. recently retired) athlete.

The IOC also announced some changes to the Olympic event program for the '12 summer Games in London. A mixed doubles even was added to the tennis competition while the number of competitors were reduced in the other four events. In addition, cycling added the omnium event, a sort of five-event pentathlon that includes five competitions: a 200-meter time trial, a five-kilometer scratch race; a 3K individual pursuit, a 15K points race and a kilometer time trial. The IOC also increased the number of track cycling events for women, who had only three events compared to seven for the men. Each gender will compete for five sets of medals in London, as the women gained team sprint and pursuit events.

Given the site of the next Olympics, the depth of the fields and the passion with which Canadians follow curling, few competitions were more intense last weekend than the Canadian Olympic curling trials in Edmonton. On the men's side, Kevin Martin defeated Glenn Howard in a match that featured a pair of former world champions. Canadian men won gold in '06 behind Brad Gushue's victorious rink. Martin, 43, has won 10 grand slam titles on the world tour and has earned over $2 million. He won gold at the world championships in '08, 17 years after taking his first world medal, a silver. Howard, who won the world title in 1987, '93 and '07, is 0-for-6 at the Canadian trials in his career. Cheryl Bernard used her final rock to upset Shannon Kleilbrink, an '06 Olympian, 7-6 in the women's final. Next to the Canadian hockey teams, no athletes will be under more pressure to perform well in front of the home fans.

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