While much was of the world was captivated by the Summer Olympics, a Mercer University graduate student was training for his own shot at the gold.
Austin Hayes, a graduate assistant cross-country/track and field coach, has been training for a spot on Team USA since March, when he decided to try out for the USA Bobsled team and the chance to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
In August, he participated in a rookie camp at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. There, he discovered that he really excelled in a different winter sport: skeleton.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
Skeleton, as described by the International Olympic Committee, involves “plummeting head-first down a steep and treacherous ice track on a tiny sled.” It’s one of the fastest Olympic events, with racers reaching speeds up to 80 mph, while lying prone on a steel sled and holding their heads just inches above the ice. There are no brakes.
“I had zero clue what I was getting myself into,” Hayes said. “Everything I currently know about the sport I learned there at the camp.”
Coaches and other athletes encouraged him to focus on skeleton, and at the end of the camp, he placed first in the skeleton push competition. Hayes was all in.
“I really enjoyed it, actually,” he said. “For whatever reason I had no fear in running down a hill full speed and jumping onto a sled. …
“I had a great time, and it’s something I’m 100% pursuing down the road.”
Since returning from rookie camp, Hayes has been invited to not only attend the next training camp in November but also to compete in the 2021 Skeleton National Push Championships in September.
Hayes, who is pursuing a Master of Business Administration in finance, began competing in track and field in high school.
“I started my sophomore year of high school against my will,” he said. “I had zero desire to get into a sport where our workouts for other sports were punishments, but I quickly realized I’m actually kind of good and started winning some things, so I just kept with it.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Western Kentucky University, he took a year off from running and training. When he got to Mercer in 2020, he started running with the cross-country athletes to stay in shape.
After seeing Josh Hayman, head cross-country coach, recommit to his own training, Hayes decided to do the same.
“So back in March, I just kind of went down the Olympics (sports) list. I got on the website, picked out six summer sports and three winter sports,” he said, thinking to himself, “I’m just going to start training and go to the Olympics in something.”
He saw the bobsled team recruited track and field sprinters, so he initially decided to go out for that sport. He reached out to Lauryn Williams, a sprinter and bobsledder who was the first American woman to win a medal in the Summer and Winter Olympics, for advice.
She connected him with a Team USA coach, who set up Hayes with an assistant coach to start training. Then, they invited him to the rookie camp Aug. 16-22 at Lake Placid.
While there, Hayes spent hours in morning and afternoon sessions, learning the mechanics of bobsled and skeleton, lifting weights and getting faster.
“We trained a ton. I think there was one day I spent four hours with different training sessions out there just pushing a sled,” he said.
Back at home, Hayes is training seven days a week, lifting three days and running the other four. He gets deep tissue massages as part of his recovery.
Thus far, training has been about form and speed. The skeleton push championships Sept. 29-30 will be the first time Hayes actually will be on ice. He’ll arrive a couple weeks early to practice.
While meals, housing and training are paid for at the Olympic training center, he has started a Facebook fundraiser to help pay for other expenses related to the championship, including exercise equipment, gear, rehabilitation, nutrition and travel.
“This is a good opportunity to kind of showcase my abilities after having a strong rookie camp showing and kind of getting my name out there,” Hayes said.