Todd Hays' brain injury could heal within three months and without surgery, an outstanding prognosis for the U.S. Olympic bobsled veteran who dropped his bid to make the Vancouver Games and retired after learning the extent of damage sustained in a training crash last week.
Hays will need further evaluation of the bleeding in his brain and will be monitored for weeks, but has full neurological function.
"I think about how lucky I've been that I've made it this far and enjoy my health and have so much fun and success doing it," Hays, a former college football player and kickboxer, told The Associated Press. "That's why this decision for me is easy. I made it this long. I've enjoyed a great, great career. I've had an incredible amount of fun and an 16-year incredible adventure in the sport of bobsled."
Hays, a three-time Olympian and 2002 silver medalist from Del Rio, Texas, retired Monday after being told his injury was worse than the preliminary concussion diagnosis. He crashed in a World Cup training run last Wednesday in Germany, and both sledmates and other U.S. teammates immediately knew Hays was seriously hurt.
"I've seen a lot of bobsled crashes and a lot of guys walk away pretty loopy, but I've never seen anybody look the way Todd did when they walked him to the ambulance," said Steven Holcomb, the reigning four-man bobsled world champion and pilot of USA-1.
U.S. bobsled officials flew Hays back to the team base in Lake Placid, N.Y. over the weekend for evaluation. When a CT scan and MRI showed irregularities, Hays — who expected to be sidelined no more than a week — was told more trauma could cause irreversible brain damage. Presented with that information, the 40-year-old made the choice to end his career.
"Right now, resting and letting the brain heal itself should take care of the problem," said Dr. Eugene Byrne, the USBSF's chief medical officer.
Concussions are not uncommon in sliding sports, where racers routinely speed down ice-coated concrete tracks at 75 mph or more, with little more than a helmet for protection. But in Byrne's six years with the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, Hays' CT scan was the first to show any abnormality.
"There's a lot of risk within our sports," U.S. skeleton racer Eric Bernotas said. "I'm just glad it sounds like he's going to be OK."
When Hays drove to an Olympic silver at Salt Lake City in 2002, it ended a 46-year medal drought for U.S. men's bobsledding.
"A gold medal wasn't going to define Todd Hays," USBSF CEO Darrin Steele said. "He's already proven himself a champion. He's got life after this and a future, so he's making the right decision, but we're going to miss having him on the team. And the success we have this year, a big part of that is from Todd."
Hays said "a calamity of errors" led to the crash.
He was taking a test sled down the track in Winterberg, Germany on a rainy, foggy, dark afternoon, and visibility was poor. The sled toppled over near the bottom of the track, with Hays' helmet skidding along the ice. Track workers also had been cutting old ice off the surface to remove buildup, and Hays said at least one large piece was left behind.
"I ended up hitting that, apparently," Hays said.
Whatever he hit, he did with such force that his helmet shattered.
"The helmet did its job," Hays said.
The crash took place around the same spot where numerous bobsleds struck the wall hard during last week's World Cup stop.
"We just came out of the curve too late, and he must have smashed his head on the short wall," said Chris Fogt, one of the push athletes in Hays' sled. "I knew it was serious right away. It was definitely a hard impact."
In bobsledding, the driver is typically the only one sitting upright, which explains why Hays was the only person in his sled injured. The other members of the sled usually have their heads tucked down toward their chest, trying to be as aerodynamic as possible.
"It's the same kind of injury that can happen in a motor vehicle accident if you have a really bad hit, your head hits the steering wheel or something like that," Byrne said. "Tiny vessels inside the brain break, and you get a little collection of blood in the brain itself."
The members of Hays' team still have a chance at the Vancouver Games.
The USBSF will try to have three sleds qualify for the Olympics, meaning Mike Kohn will have a chance to drive his way onto the team and join Holcomb and John Napier on the U.S. roster. Kohn will race in America's Cup events at Lake Placid this weekend, trying to gain much-needed world ranking points.
Hays plans on staying involved in bobsledding, through coaching or development.
"I've come to love the sport over these years," Hays said. "But right now, the main focus for me is going to be accelerate the healing."