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U.S. Sled Team Struggles After Setbacks


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The Winter Games in Vancouver are just a few weeks away, and the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation says it's back. That's after the team fell apart in 2006, plagued by scandals and injuries. It was a far cry from its dominant performance in Salt Lake City in 2002.

While the sled team insists it has regrouped, it's still struggling with injuries and money troubles. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: On a breathlessly cold morning, two American sledders in Lycra suits and crash helmets hurl their bobsled down the start track into the first ice-covered chute.

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MANN: But at this America's Cup race in Lake Placid, New York, one of America's strongest medal hopefuls is watching from the sidelines. In 2002, Todd Hays helped break a 40-year medal drought for the American bobsled team, capturing silver at Salt Lake City. Last month, his sled flipped on a training run, hurling him against the ice.

Mr.�TODD HAYS (Former Olympic Bobsledder): Just kind of made an overcorrection and ended up crashing out of the final turn, which obviously puts you on your head.

MANN: The CAT scan confirmed that Hays is suffering from bleeding in his brain. He's expected to recover, but he'll never sled-race again.

Mr.�HAYS: I know how easy life can go one way or another, and I could easily have just been killed on that track.

MANN: Hays' accident sent tremors through America's tight-knit sledding world because the team has been here before. Four years ago, top skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace was knocked out of competition when a sled driven by another athlete ejected from a track and shattered her leg. There was controversy when an American medal hopeful was disqualified for allegedly using a banned chemical, and then female athletes accused a senior coach of sexual harassment. The U.S. Olympic Committee stepped in, staging only the second takeover of a sports federation in its history.

Mr.�DARRIN STEELE (Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation): Sometimes you have to take a step back and say, you know, I think we need a new perspective.

MANN: Darrin Steele, who took over the bobsled and skeleton teams in 2006, says the training program was in disarray.

Mr.�STEELE: One of the challenges I think we had in the past was that things did change year to year, and athletes, they need a level of consistency. They need to be very clear what it means to make the teams.

MANN: Rebuilding from the letdown at the Torino games have been tough, Steele says, especially with the sour economy chasing away corporate sponsors.

Mr.�STEELE: It's been a struggle. Companies are pretty cautious. They're reluctant to sign on to longer-term contracts.

MANN: The recruiting has improved, and America's bobsled and skeleton teams are competing well on the World Cup Tour, a hopeful sign. Justin Orr from San Diego played tight end for Notre Dame in college. He's fighting to secure a place on the Olympic bobsled team, which will be locked in this weekend.

Mr.�JUSTIN ORR (Bobsledder): You've got a lot more highly competitive athletes. So the sport has changed just since I came back. Before in 2002, it didn't have anywhere near the talent that they have now.

MANN: In the last Winter Olympics, America's overall medal tally dropped by nearly a third. To win big in Vancouver, the U.S. will need some of those sledders back up on the podium. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Lake Placid, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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