Injured-plagued underdog, NOLA native Chelsea Hayes knocking on door of Olympic return
That same little giggle somehow punctuates even the most disappointing and frustrating moments as Chelsea Hayes vents through the past four years.
A fractured back, a bulging disc, severe patellar tendonitis in her right knee, tendonitis in her left and injuries to her groin, hip flexor and abductor among other areas haven’t been able to wear away the wide, infectious smile not even Hurricane Katrina could dampen for long.
And so the 2012 U.S. Olympian returned to Eugene, Ore., on Tuesday for this week’s Olympic Trials in search of an against-all-odds, storybook finish to her rollercoaster coming of age.
“The thing was: Katrina, we lost everything — we even lost family members,” says Hayes, who will compete in the long jump Friday evening. “So I wouldn’t put (the past four years) on that same platform. It was pretty tough. It was pretty stressful. There were times I questioned my ability. There were times that I questioned whether I should keep going forward with this.
“‘What should I do? Is this for me? Was my last calling in London? Should I keep going forward?’
“But I just think about, ‘I’ve been through Katrina. I lost everything, and that thing that kept me going was track and field.’ That got me out of New Orleans. I don’t know where I would be without track. Track got me to college. So that’s why I feel like, no matter what, at the end of the day, you can take everything from me, but you’re not gonna take away my ability to compete and my ability to keep fighting.”
Hayes isn’t misguided or shy about her underdog status.
But she’s also been tuning out conventions and supposed limitations since her childhood in New Orleans East.
“Always,” mother Joyce Hayes laughs. “I used to tell her all the time the football was for boys, but she wanted to get in there and throw a couple of throws to the boys. I told her leave the boys’ games to the boys, but she didn’t care much for the girls’ stuff. She really didn’t.
“Dolls and things like that, getting her nails done — she didn’t care for things like that. Playing nintendo, wrestling, playing football, trying to play basketball with ‘em. She’s always been a little tomboy. She’s always been tough.”
Chelsea — or, as her family calls her, “Calli” or “Kelly” — credits her constant mission to keep pace with her three older brothers for the root of that toughness.
But, in races, the brothers were the ones who struggled to keep up.
“I used to beat them,” Chelsea laughs. “Almost all the time.”
Joyce remembers her daughter “always running” and often jogging around the block at 10 years old, but admits she didn’t think much of the activity until a bit later.
Chelsea joined the Abramson High School track team as a junior and first caught the eye of Shawn Jackson, Louisiana Tech’s associate head track coach at the time, that spring.
“We were looking at her more for her sprinting ability,” he said four years ago. “And she said, ‘Hey, I’m a pretty good jumper, too.’”
Katrina threw a major curveball at her senior year and recruiting process, though.
Chelsea was unsure for three weeks whether her mother, who refused to evacuate, had survived.
Joyce, herself, wasn’t sure at times she would.
“I stayed, and I made a big mistake by staying and trying to stay in the house,” Joyce says. “And I spent most of that time on my knees praying, because the water was rising so far, and I was afraid if it would come up any further. We were already in the attic at the top of the house. We couldn’t go up any further, so if it would’ve came up over the house, everything would’ve been gone.”
Chelsea spent time during the following months at a shelter in Baton Rouge, then made stops at high schools in Georgia, Maryland and Tennessee before eventually landing at Neville in Monroe and managing to graduate despite all the upheaval.
She began her college career at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., before joining Jackson at Louisiana Tech after all.
Her path reached historic heights — or at least distances — in Ruston.
But the lessons learned during those difficult times have continued to resonate — both during her record-setting rise to the 2012 Olympics in London and the all-out battle to return to her sport’s biggest stage.
“I always looked back to when Katrina happened,” she says. “I tell some of my friends, ‘Katrina took everything away from me. And right now, I feel like I have nothing, but the one thing that I do have is track and field.’ Nobody can take my talent.”
Chelsea Hayes set four Western Athletic Conference records, won 14 WAC championships and earned 18 all-conference and six all-america honors during her three years sprinting and jumping at Louisiana Tech.
And a WAC-best long jump of 21 feet, 8 inches (6.60 meters) during her final college season was, in some ways, only the beginning.
The Bulldogs’ star made the most of that qualification for the Olympic Trials with a leap of 23 feet, 3 1/2 inches (7.10 meters) to secure her position on the national team.
“She deals with some things, but the thing I do is to keep everything in perspective,” says Jackson, who joined TCU’s staff later that summer. “ If she never, ever makes the Olympic team again, if her track career ended today, she’s accomplished something that 99.9 percent of the world would never be able to do: She made an Olympic team. She can say she was an Olympian. And that says something. I think sometimes she doesn’t keep that in perspective. I know she wants to make this team, and I know she wants to continue to do well, but at some point in time, you’ve gotta say, ‘Hey, I’m enjoying what I do, and I’m gonna keep on doing it, but if it comes to an end, I can live with it.’”
But a 16th-place finish in London seems to have stuck with Hayes more than any of the leaps and bounds that got her there.
“I was really excited to be there, but the day of my competition was when it really hit me, like, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m here,’ and my mind just went blank,” she says. “I was more scared because I’ve never been on that platform before with that many people…. It was just like I forgot how to jump.
“It has been (a driving force) because I went from jumping 23 feet to barely jumping 20 feet, so I’m just trying to work hard to get back to where I know I can be. And then also knowing that I was in that situation before, and being pro for the next four years, I kind of gained that confidence and stuff being on that platform, that stage, so it’s like once I’m there, I feel like I will be able to handle the situation better than I did when I was just a kid out of college.”
The four-year lap back to this point has been anything but smooth.
“I was competing and everything was fine, and then I first strained my groin in Tokyo (in 2013),” she begins rattling off a persistent list of injuries. “Then I got back to the U.S., and I had to sit out a month for that. And then when I got back, I got back about two weeks before the USA outdoors in 2013, and I competed there and I went overseas. And from there, my back was just hurting — hurting to where I couldn’t walk, and I barely could jump.”
She continued to power through that pain.
“I’m not big on running to the doctor when something happens,” she says. “I just deal with it.”
Her mother adds: “She took it easy a couple days and stood home and had a little treatment done, but most of all she’s been trying to focus on her performance… She didn’t stay out too long for the injuries — not more than, I guess, about a few days.”
Chelsea slipped from the necessary “tier” status and lost the “elite athlete health insurance” once provided by the US Olympic Committee.
But Jackson finally convinced his star pupil to visit a doctor in fall 2014 with the help of Jim and Margaret Davison, major Louisiana Tech benefactors who “basically adopted” her after her career at their alma mater.
“They paid for me to go to the doctor and get an X-ray and MRI, and they said, ‘You have a fracture in your back,’” she says, almost still sounding surprised. “I was like, ‘What?’
“The doctor said, ‘Yeah. Why do you think you’re in so much pain? I don’t see how you dealt with that because men come in here with the same issue, and they come in here crying.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s just my job.’”
Rehabilitation from the back injury drastically limited her activity until early spring 2015.
And then other area of her body that had picked up the slack for so long began to act up, too.
“I got bad patellar tendonitis from over-using my knee,” she says. “It was really bad to where they actually thought I tore my patella, because there would be times that I could just be walking and my leg would give out on me, and this was my jump leg.
“So they did an ultrasound on that and said, ‘Well, it’s not torn. It’s just bleeding on the inside.’ Like, what? So I’m dealing with my leg issue, and then I had tendonitis in my other leg in the back part of my knee, so I was just all messed up. Then, the lateral side of my leg down from my knee to my ankle was hurting so bad they thought I had fractured that. I just felt like, ‘Man, I can’t get a break.’”
Hip flexor and abductor issues followed this January, February and March.
The challenge before Hayes added another twist when Nike declined the financial option on her contract heading into 2016.
“So I actually had to end up selling my car so I can train,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know that. A lot of people think, ‘You’re an Olympian. You have all this money.’ But we don’t get any money from going to the Olympics. The only thing I had was my contract that Nike gave me, and they took that away.
“I was working, but it was to the point that I was working and then had practice, and I was killing myself. My trainer was like, ‘Chelsea, you’re never gonna heal. You need to rest. You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ But I didn’t have anything else I could do, so I actually had to sell my car.
“It was a Challenger, a 2014 Dodge Challenger semi, and it was brand new. That was my baby. But you have to make sacrifices… It was basically a brand new car — paid for — and I loved my car. But it was materialistic, and I had to make that choice.”
Hayes moved to Fort Worth, Texas, to continue working with Jackson and has juggled jobs as a service agent at Enterprise and youth track coach at Fort Worth Country Day school to pay her bills and fund her aspects of her training.
“I think that’s the toughest thing with some of the setbacks and some of the injuries and having to work,” Jackson says. “Before, she was in school and everything just flowed naturally right on from the WAC Championship to the NCAAs and nationals. It just flowed, whereas now, if you’re a pro athlete and you’re not jumping good, you can’t get into meets.
“And then you go overseas to meets, and for instance, she went to a meet in China and got hurt, and she was over there for about a week, and then it takes two days to recover from the trip, so we end up missing eight days of practice, whereas in college everything just flows better.”
Hayes has competed in a handful of meets the past three months, but has been far from satisfied with the results.
“Not at all,” she says. “Track and field, if you miss a week, it’s gonna feel like you missed three months, so it’s just coming back, trying to work back. Training’s been really good. I still have little injuries nagging me, but nothing too serious. But it basically feels like I’m starting all over.
“It’ just real frustrating because of where I came from and what I know I can do and now just starting all the way from the bottom again…. But the good part is I came out healthy. Usually before when I was jumping, my back would be hurting or something else would be hurting. But the fact that I can compete and do all six jumps and I’m perfectly fine and can go to practice the next day, that’s the good thing.”
Hayes still sounds primarily upbeat throughout her discussion of the journey.
Even her sighs at the thought of how never-ending the string of setbacks has seemed come with somewhat of a playful tone.
“That’s what people from the outside see,” Jackson says. “I see quite a bit more. And it gets frustrating for her at times … It’s difficult. Being an athlete in any sports, when things don’t go your way, it’s difficult. So I try to get her to keep that in perspective that regardless of what happens from here on out, she did something that people would die for.”
THE FINISH LINE?
All those struggles aside, Hayes managed to secure a qualification for the Olympic Trials last May when she posted a mark of 22 feet, 1 1/4 inches (6.74 meters) in a meet not long after returning from her back issues.
“Luckily, by the grace of God, I got the standard,” she says. “That was my best jump last year, and luckily I got it in the couple days right before the window that you have to get it in ended.
“I didn’t know until a couple of months after, when they posted people that have achieved the Olympic standard, and I saw my name and was like, ‘Oh my God! Really? That’s good!’”
This week will be emotional regardless of the outcome, she says.
But she is focused on blocking out all of those feelings and letting her training and technique carry her.
“It will just be more of what I have to do, what I’ve been training for and what I have to focus on,” she says. “AS far as the competition, I’m not too worried about the competition, because I’m my own competition. If I do what I’m supposed to do, I know I’ll be on that team.”
Joyce Hayes would love to follow her daughter to Rio De Janeiro if so.
She missed the 2012 trip to London to stay home with Chelsea’s ailing brother, who has rebounded in recent years from his own health issues thanks in no small part to a liver transplant.
“It would mean an awful lot to her — an awful lot — and it would mean a lot to us, too,” Joyce says. “It would mean a lot to her, though, because this is her life, this is her goal, and she wants to be successful. She’s putting everything else on hold. She’s putting the rest of her life on hold to go there.
“I said, ‘Chelsea, you’re gonna have to think about marriage and a family of your own, because you’re getting old.’ And she just says, ‘Track is it right now. Everything I’m doing is focusing on track. Everything else is second. I’m not worried about that. My focus is completely on track.’ And that’s what she’s doing, so we’re trying to support her on it and see how far she can go.”
Chelsea’s qualifying mark ranks ninth — about a foot and a half short of leader Brittney Reese and about eight inches of third-best Cynithia Janay DeLoach, her two fellow U.S. long jumpers from the 2012 Olympics.
“It’s the same thing, the same situation,” she says of her underdog role. “Especially since I haven’t really done anything better since 2012. I’ll be in the same situation going into this year’s Trials, which I’m perfectly fine with, because I like surprising people.”
The odds appear long, but Hayes has been out-running, out-leaping and out-toughing expectations since her childhood.
And she’s already overcome a gauntlet of physical and mental obstacles just to come this far.
“There are others that would’ve (persevered), but I think the majority would’ve just been finished and just said, ‘Hey, I’ve made an Olympic team, and now I’m just kind of done with it,’” Jackson says. “There are so many times when things haven’t gone the way she wanted them to go, so it would just be easy for her to walk away … I tell her all the time, ‘If you wanna do this, that’s fine. But make sure you’re doing it because you love to do it and not just because you don’t know what you’re gonna do after it’s over.’
“The thing I tell her is sometimes people think that’s quitting, but it’s not quitting. It just comes to an end sometimes. If you walk away, that doesn’t mean that you quit. It just means that that’s the end of that story and it’s on to start another book. And I don’t know that this book is closed yet, but she can’t be afraid to close it when it’s time for it to close.”
The light-hearted tomboy from New Orleans that Hurricane Katrina began transforming into “little Chelsea Hayes from Louisiana Tech,” with the chip on her shoulder, is far from a favorite heading into Friday’s qualifying round.
But she, naturally, isn’t conceding anything at the moment.
And if she shocks yet again, don’t be so sure that twist will be the last of her track-and-field storybook.
“I definitely think she’s more of an underdog, so to say, than she was in ’12, just because of the setbacks that she’s had,” Jackson says. “In terms of trying to make the team, I think the biggest thing she’s gotta be able to do is make the finals. If she can make the finals and be jumping the next day, I think at that point in time, I think the light starts to go on and everything starts to say, ‘Hey, I did it once. I’ll do it again.’ If you make the final, then you’re comfortable in the position you’re in and you start to say, ‘You know what? This is the same position I was in last time. I wasn’t supposed to make the finals this year, but now that I’ve made the finals, heck, I’m gonna make the team.’
“If she can make the finals, I wouldn’t bet against her.”
Jerit Roser can be reached at Jerit@DatBoot.com.