LA Tech Hall of Fame: Chelsea Hayes

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Chelsea Hayes

RUSTON — Adversity.

Everybody is dealt it. At least at some point in their lives.

Now the scope of that adversity differs across everybody affected by it.

The one thing controllable during adverse times? Attitude.

Louisiana Tech Hall of Fame inductee Chelsea Hayes was dealt more adversity in her first 30-plus years of life than most people experience in a lifetime.

But it didn’t break her.

In fact, the argument could be made that it made her. Molded her into the person she is today.

An Olympic athlete.

A Louisiana Tech Hall of Famer.

Growing up in New Orleans East, the youngest of four children – she has three older brothers – Chelsea was pressed into competitiveness not necessarily by want, but more by need. Her brothers jumped higher, threw harder and ran faster, but that just motivated her.

Chelsea was never interested in the same things that most girls her age were. Instead most days she could be found out in the yard with her brothers playing football, basketball or just wresting. And according to her, there wasn’t much competition.

“I used to beat them pretty bad,” Chelsea said. “Especially when we were running. They just couldn’t keep up.”

Growing up with her natural speed and athleticism, Chelsea focused mainly on basketball, until one routine day of testing in gym class.

“In P.E. we had to do these testing drills every now and then,” Chelsea said. “One of the drills was the broad jump. I was always competitive from growing up as the baby girl with all older brothers, so I basically said I’m gonna beat everybody. So I jumped once, and the coach just stared at me and said he’d see me at the next track meet.”

Chelsea wasn’t originally sold on the idea of competing in track and field, until she found out that leaving school early for track meets was part of the equation.

She went to her first competitive track meet as a junior in high school with little to no idea of proper technique, form or training.

She still dominated the field.

“I went to my first meet with absolutely no idea what I was doing,” said Chelsea. “They told me to just run and jump. In my first meet, I think I jumped 17’-9” and then I ran the 100 meters at like 12.1. I just did what they told me to do and from that point on, I just kept getting better and better.”

Better and better indeed.

Chelsea thoroughly commanded the high school landscape on sheer athleticism and will. As she wrapped up her junior season, college track programs began to notice.

While running for the New Orleans Metro Stars (a New Orleans area AAU track team) at the Junior Olympics in New Orleans, she drew the attention of Shawn Jackson, then the Louisiana Tech associate head track coach.

“I was there actually recruiting a couple other girls and I saw her competing,” Jackson recalled. “I really liked her size, build and her competitive attitude that whole weekend. We talked very briefly, and I told her I would be in touch again when school started back up.

“But a couple weeks later, Katrina hit, and that changed everything.”

Change everything it did.

Before Chelsea could begin her promising senior year at Marion Abramson Senior High School, her and hundreds of thousands of lives would be altered forever.

“I worked at McDonald’s at the time,” Chelsea recalled. “We actually all went to school that week leading up to Katrina and I was at work. To be honest, I didn’t know the hurricane was going to be as big as it was, because I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention. What got my attention was when they told us we were closing early at work – and you know McDonald’s never closes early.”

With the hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Chelsea along with her brother, aunt and nieces made the decision to evacuate New Orleans. Chelsea’s mother, Joyce, however, refused to leave her home, and stayed behind.

Chelsea, along with her family who had evacuated initially tried to go to Houston, but ended up east in Tennessee due to the sheer volume of traffic flooding every hotel surrounding the state of Louisiana.

After the initial storm, Chelsea lost contact with her mother. For nearly four weeks, she had no idea whether Joyce had made it through the storm and the flooding thereafter.

“We hopped back in the car and drove down to Baton Rouge, where we stayed in a shelter,” said Chelsea. “We stayed in the shelter almost an entire month without hearing from my mom or my brother. I just remember sitting outside one day and my phone rang and it was my mom. That was one of the happiest days of my life – when I heard her voice again.”

After being reunited, the Hayes family now had the difficult decision of where to restart life. New Orleans was not an option due to the devastation, so her family relocated to Georgia. Now in October of her senior year, Chelsea was faced with the possibility of not graduating on time.

“My first week at school in Georgia, they told me that my school records from Louisiana didn’t count, and I was going to have to take all these classes back over again,” she said. “I decided I didn’t want to go through all that hassle, so I just moved back to Louisiana. I came back and went to Neville (High School in Monroe) and graduated from there.”

Not being able to compete for most of her senior year, Chelsea was lightly recruited, and ended up attending Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.

In a foreign part of the country and surrounded by strangers, she struggled to find motivation to be her best on the track and to compete to the fullest of her capabilities — until a small piece of advice from Butler assistant coach Eugene Frazier flipped a switch.

“My first year in Kansas was tough, because I didn’t go there with any discipline at all,” Chelsea said. “I could barely finish any of the workouts. I was always crying and whining to the coaches. I just wasn’t used to the work it took to get better.

“One day, we were at practice and Coach Frazier pulled me aside and said, ‘From now on, I never want to see you in the back of the pack. I always want to see you leading.’ So from that point on,” she said, “something just clicked inside me. I started giving 110 percent at every practice, no matter what.”

Her potential began to show itself.

At Butler, Chelsea broke eight program records over the course of her freshman season, drawing the attention of Division I programs around the country, including Louisiana Tech.

After losing contact with Coach Jackson and Tech more than a year prior, Hayes and the program and University she first felt drawn to were reconnected. Chelsea was offered a chance to come to Ruston and compete among the best of the best at the Division I level.

When she first arrived on campus in Ruston, Chelsea realized that in order to maximize her potential, she would first need to win when nobody was watching.

“I got to Tech and the practices were so much harder,” she said. “Then I started looking around at my teammates and saw how good they were and how many state championships they had all won. I’d never had competition like this close to my level before. But I went back to what Coach Frazier had told me at Butler, and I tried to lead the pack in every single thing we did. My goal was to never be behind.”

Never be behind.

A simple but practical goal that Chelsea took to heart her three years at Louisiana Tech.

Four Western Athletic Conference records. Fourteen WAC championship titles. Eighteen all-conference honors. Six All-America accolades.

All while running and jumping for Tech.

“It’s really hard to not use clichés when you talk about great athletes, and that is certainly true in Chelsea’s case,” said Louisiana Tech head track and field coach Gary Stanley. “Simply put, she was a great competitor. She hated to lose and wanted everyone around her to feel the same way. She risked injury multiple times to compete in as many events as possible to help our team win multiple conference championships.”

All those awards and honors culminating in the most coveted position in the track & field community: a chance to represent Team USA on the largest stage possible; the Olympic games.

Two weeks prior to the Olympic trials, Chelsea broke onto the national stage when she finished second in the long jump at the indoor nationals. However, more adversity reared its head at the outdoor nationals in Des Moines, Iowa.

“We went to outdoors with the thought that we would for sure win there,” Jackson recalled. “But according to the rules back then, they took only one person from each flight. Chelsea jumped great, but she didn’t qualify for finals. So we went from coming in second at indoor — to not even qualifying for the finals in outdoor. It was devastating.

“The next morning, we woke up, went to practice and watched the rest of the meet,” he said. “That right there was a sign of her maturity, that she was ready to take that next step and become truly great.”

At the 2012 US Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Chelsea entered the event as one of the unknown competitors despite her success on the collegiate level.

“Throughout college, I was always in the top 5 in jumping, but being at a smaller school, I never got the recognition say someone at Florida or Georgia might have gotten,” Chelsea said. “Going into the trials, nobody counted me in, so I just leaned on my coaches and my faith and just believed in myself.”

Hayes faced an uphill battle going into the trials. The qualifying standard in 2012 was 22-feet, 2 inches.

Chelsea’s best jump leading up to the event? 21-feet, 10.75-inches.

Her first jump of 22-feet, 2.25-inches smashed her personal record and put her in fifth place of the 12-athlete finals round; she still needed an additional 4.25 inches to land in the top three and reach her goal.

Second jump – foul.

Third jump – foul.

Fourth jump – foul.

Fifth jump – foul.

Down to her sixth and final jump, Chelsea made history: 23-feet, 3.5-inches – good for second place and a spot on Team USA at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

She had scaled the mountain and put forth the longest jump of her career, besting her previous career best by more than a foot.

“I just remember everything about that last jump moving in slow motion,” said Chelsea. “It took forever for them to put my mark up, and we were all wondering if I fouled, or jumped long enough. It felt like forever. Then my jump flashed up there and my initial reaction was ‘Oh my God – I just jumped 23 feet and I’m going to the Olympics.’”

Chelsea became just the fourth known Louisiana Tech track and field athlete to compete at the Olympic games, and placed 12th in the event in London.

She finished her Louisiana Tech career as one of the most decorated — arguably the most decorated — athletes in school history, and to those closest to her, her Hall of Fame status came as no surprise.

“I wasn’t really shocked or surprised when I heard the news,” said Jackson. “It was always expected in my mind. She had such a stellar collegiate career, along with qualifying for the Olympics. I was just very happy for her. But, obviously I’m biased, so I always expected her to get to this point.”

The news did catch Chelsea a bit off guard.

“It’s just a major honor to always be a part of the Louisiana Tech Athletics history,” said Chelsea. “I mean it’s still a shock to me because I’m pretty young to be getting inducted into Hall of Fame already – but it’s truly an honor and one that I’ll hold with me forever.”

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