A year ago, when he raced on the 2006 Olympic bobsled course in Cesana Pariol, Italy, Todd Hays was the world's second-ranked four-man driver, having dropped out of the top spot after the previous competition. But on that day the fearless Texan, who in 1995 purchased his first sled with winnings from an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Tokyo, accidentally ran the sled over his right foot, nearly slicing it in half. As he steered down the course, he felt blood seeping into his shoe and began to wonder if his dream of being the first man since 1948 to drive a U.S. bobsled to gold had just ended--on the Olympic ice, no less.
"I was hoping it was just pain and nothing permanent," recalls Hays, 36. "We have no brakes, so that was a long trip to the bottom." Hays's coaches and teammates were unaware of the mishap until he extracted himself from the sled, apologized for the sixth-place finish, pointed to his foot and said, "Little problem." Says Tuffy Latour, the team's head coach, "Todd was standing in a pool of blood with his foot peeled open like an orange. You didn't know if someone could come back from that. Luckily, it was Todd."
Indeed, Hays, a former Tulsa linebacker and national champion kickboxer, returned to form in no time. Soon after the accident, doctors told him the ligaments and tendons were unharmed, though his foot was infected and would require a six- to eight-month rehab. Instead, he returned to action a month later at the world championships in Calgary, piloting his four-man sled to a fifth-place finish even though he could barely push off with his right foot. At last weekend's competition in K√∂nigssee, Germany, Hays and brakeman Pavle Jovanovic held on to their lead in the World Cup two-man standings by finishing seventh, and Hays, Jovanovic, Steve Mesler and Brock Kreitzburg moved up to second in the four-man standings with a runner-up finish. On Monday both of Hays's crews were named to the Olympic team.
The Texas native always has his sport on his mind, even back at his custom-built house, which sits in a game preserve at the edge of Texas hill country in Concan (pop. 224), midway between his hometown of Del Rio, on the Mexican border, and San Antonio. From his porch Hays sees wild pigs, antelope, eight species of deer and other animals, but no people; his nearest neighbor is two miles away. He's sought out everyone from Indy car engineers to soapbox-derby racers to find ways to make his sled faster. "I'm always trying to learn about the physics behind aerodynamics and velocity," he says in his Texas twang. When Hays read an article explaining how the color black could increase vehicles' speed by absorbing the heat created by wind friction, he persuaded Latour to paint the U.S. sleds black.
In 2000, after buying a new Swiss-made sled, Hays defied the tradition of sharing technical information with teammates. "I asked Todd if we could borrow the mold from his sled to see if it would make our sled go faster," says Brian Shimer, who had been the No. 1 U.S. driver for nearly a decade. "Todd told me, 'No. Why should I help you beat me?'" Hays's four-man team won silver in Salt Lake City. Shimer, then 39, won his first Olympic medal, a bronze, in his fifth try. "Todd pushes people to something greater," says Shimer, now the national team's driving coach. "[That determination] is what makes him dangerous in the Olympics."
• More from Brian Cazeneuve at SI.com/olympics.
Daron Rahlves (above) won the fabled Lauberhorn downhill last Saturday in Wengen, Switzerland, his third downhill win of the season, fortifying his position as the Olympic favorite. Here's a look at the top U.S. downhillers of the World Cup era (1968-present).
Nine career World Cup downhill victories; finished 16th in 2002 Olympic downhill
Three World Cup downhills; won Olympic gold medal in '84
Two World Cup downhills; 2006 will be his first Olympic downhill
Two World Cup downhills; highest finish in three Olympic downhills was ninth in '98
One World Cup downhill; best finish in three Olympic downhills was ninth in '92
No World Cup downhills; surprise Olympic gold medalist in '94