Before becoming a U.S. Olympic bobsled pilot, Todd Hays was a college football player and then an accomplished kickboxer, never one to shy away from contact sports.
His competitive athletic career is now over, after a crash that originally seemed minor.
Hays' retirement was announced by the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation late Monday night, citing a serious condition called intraparenchymal hematoma — best described as bleeding into the brain tissue.
"My family and my future are more important than anything, and I need to keep that in mind as I consider what's happened," Hays said in a statement released by the USBSF. "This isn't how I wanted to end my career, and I'm devastated because I feel like I'm letting my team down. There are three guys in my sled that were counting on me to give them an Olympic ticket. Now I can't do that."
A three-time Olympian, Hays did not immediately respond to requests by The Associated Press early Tuesday morning for further comment. It's not known what kind of further treatment, if any, will be required.
"In discussion (Monday) with various experts in the field of sports induced injuries, it was the consensus that Todd should not engage in any further bobsledding to avoid any additional trauma to a healing brain which may cause irreversible damage," team doctor Eugene Byrne said.
The crash that ended his career came last Wednesday on a foggy, rainy day on a track in Winterberg, Germany during a World Cup training session. Hays was in his four-man sled when he lost control. None of his three pushers were injured, and Hays was originally thought to have sustained a concussion.
After an overnight stay in a German hospital, USBSF doctors decided to bring Hays back to Lake Placid, N.Y. for further evaluation, with hopes he could compete in an America's Cup race this weekend and stay on track for what would have been a fourth trip to the Olympics.
That's when the bleeding was detected, quickly sending shock waves through the federation.
"I know that the decision to retire was difficult for him, but I believe he made the right decision by putting his current and future health first," USBSF CEO Darrin Steele said. "Todd is a champion with or without a gold medal. We will continue to support Todd's recovery efforts while he regains his health."
Hays first retired after failing to reach the podium at the 2006 Turin Games, then returned to the sport in 2008. He is one of the most-decorated U.S. bobsled drivers ever, with two world championship medals in his collection. And when he drove a U.S. sled to silver at Salt Lake City in 2002, it ended a 46-year Olympic medal drought for American men's bobsledding.
Hays won a World Cup silver medal in two-man bobsledding earlier this season at Park City, Utah, then strained his hamstring the next night in a four-man race. He rehabbed and remained in Olympic contention, and the race in Winterberg would have been his first time back on the World Cup circuit since the leg injury.
"I felt like the pieces were coming together," Hays said. "As you get older you worry about injuries, but I kept my speed and strength and was able to compete at the highest level. I never expected this was how I would end my career. But again, my health, my family and my future are more important than a few more runs down the track."
Hays spent years — not to mention plenty of his own money — chasing Olympic gold, even building and designing his own sleds.
He played football at Tulsa, briefly tried a pro football career in the CFL, then turned to kickboxing with hopes of making enough money to finance his bobsled career.
In 2002 at Park City, Hays teamed with Randy Jones, Bill Schuffenhauer and Garrett Hines to win Olympic silver, then announced his retirement before his final run of the 2006 Turin Olympics.
"I think we all knew he'd come back for 2010," U.S. pilot and reigning world four-man champion Steven Holcomb said.
With Hays now unable to compete, it would appear the U.S. almost certainly will send only two men's bobsled drivers to the Olympics, with Holcomb and upstart John Napier set to compete in both two- and four-man events. Members of Hays' push team will be considered to fill the spots on the Olympic roster as well.