“same old story in New Orleans.”
— Jay-Z (2006)
Grown impatient with his star pupil, Shawn Jackson had no time to peel back layers, to play therapist while Chelsea Hayes sorted out whatever was troubling her.
So, as Hayes plodded her way back up the runway after four straight fouls in the long jump finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this month, Jackson walked over and made his point as quickly as he could.
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“We’re going to London,” Jackson said.
Hayes nodded, still in her own world.
Then, Hayes felt a shove. She staggered backward then gathered herself. There was Jackson, with a wild look in his eyes.
“We’re going to London,” said Jackson, Hayes’ sprints and jumps coach at Louisiana Tech. “You hear me, Chelsea? London. I’m getting my passport. You understand me?”
This was a man Hayes trusted. A man she’d known since before the storm. Since before The Fat Man and before El Dorado and before Tech and before Hayward Field and before she’d just fouled four straight times in front of God knows how many people.
“London,” Hayes said, nodding as she set herself up for her final attempt. “We’re going to London.”
Hearts in New Orleans
The four children Joyce Hayes brought up by herself in a modest, two-story home in New Orleans East stuck together like glue, per Joyce’s one, over-everything-else rule: Always keep an eye on one another.
Shawn, the oldest, ruled the brood. Keegan and Kenji, four and five years younger than Shawn, fell in line. And so did Chelsea, the youngest and only girl.
“She was a little tomboy, whatever they did she did it, too,” Joyce said. “There wasn’t too many girls in the neighborhood, so whatever those boys were playing, she had to play, too.”
Which meant a lot of football and basketball, because those are the sports that little boys play in New Orleans. It wasn’t until Chelsea’s junior year of high school that a coach goaded her into coming out for the track team at Marion Abramson High School after seeing her test for the broad jump in gym class.
“I was a pretty good basketball player, and up until then that was the only thing I’d ever trained for,” Chelsea said. “Growing up my brothers always told me how fast I was and how good I was going to be at sports one day, but no one else ever really noticed that athletic side of me.”
Chelsea quickly excelled at track, in both the sprints and jumps, and joined a local AAU track and field team the summer of 2005, right before her senior year.
“That was the first time I ever had a coach really work on me with jump stuff, and I started to love it,” Chelsea said. “We went to a meet and I jumped something like 19 feet, 6 inches and (the coaches) told me I was good at it and if I wanted to, I could do it in college.”
That was around the same time Chelsea met Jackson, who approached her at an AAU meet toward the end of the summer. The two exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch.
They wouldn’t see each other again for four years.
Joyce, a lifelong New Orleans resident, had seen a lot of storms come and go, so it was in her nature not to run from them.
And when mayor Ray Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of the city on Aug. 28 2005, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the city, it was of no surprise to anyone when Joyce, despite pleas from her children, was among the 20 percent of the city’s 1.3 million residents that chose not to leave.
Chelsea, just one day before the start of her senior year of high school, left town that day with Shawn, his girlfriend and his two daughters. Keegan went to the Superdome, where Joyce originally went with her mother, Myrtle, and two small children she was caring for at the time. She went home when she felt it was too dangerous there. Kenji went to Lake Charles.
“I called my mom at about 1 a.m. when we finally made it out of the storm’s path and she said that it was just raining really hard, nothing out of the ordinary,” Chelsea said. “But when I woke up we started to hear that the city had flooded and we couldn’t get through to her. And then we started to panic.”
The congestion of traffic forced Shawn and Chelsea all the way up to Tennessee before they could double back to a shelter in Baton Rouge — the sights along the way seemingly pulled straight from a post-apocalyptic movie.
“We finally got to a gas station, and power was out, obviously, so none of the pumps were working,” Chelsea said. “So people had figured out a way to get gas out of the ground and were pumping it that way it was crazy.”
Back in New Orleans, where 80 percent of the city was underwater after the city’s levee system failed, Joyce and her group had escaped to the second story of her home as flood waters continued to fill up the house.
“I told my mother that we could go up to the attic if we had to, but there was no way we were going to be able to get out and on the roof if it came up any further than that,” Joyce said. “And then we prayed.”
The water finally stopped, just two stairs away from where Joyce and her mother sat with the two young children. Three days later, they were airlifted by helicopter out of New Orleans and taken to a shelter in Texas, then to Atlanta and then to Baton Rouge.
For almost three weeks, Chelsea and her brothers did not know if their mother was one of the 1,836 who lost their lives in the storm.
“I was sitting outside of the shelter in Baton Rouge one day, and my phone started ringing and it was her,” Chelsea said. “She told me she was OK and I don’t even know what we said after that because I was running, trying to find everybody. We always kept up hope.”
Reunited, the family bounced around Georgia, then with family in Maryland and then finally back to Monroe, La., where Chelsea graduated from Neville High that May. She took a track scholarship at South Plains (Texas) College, a junior college, but didn’t even last a month before she returned to New Orleans, homesick and wanting to stay close to her mother.
Hayes spent the next year working at a grocery store until Butler Community College assistant track and field coach Eugene Frazier tracked her down and convinced her to head west and give college another try.
“I just hopped in my little car and drove,” Hayes said. “And I told myself, ‘OK, this might not be what you’re used to, but you’re going to finish what you start here, no matter what.’ ”
And finish she did. Hayes set nine school records in two years at Butler, including in the long jump, triple jump, 55, 100 and 200 meters, and was a seven-time NJCAA All-American. That’s not to say her time there was perfect — she was suspended from the team for the outdoor season of her sophomore year after a disagreement with the coaching staff, although it was after she’d reconnected with Jackson at the NJCAA indoor nationals and been offered a scholarship to Louisiana Tech.
“She’s a wonderful person, and through everything that happened we never thought anything less of her,” said former Butler track and field coach and current Wichita State cross country coach Kirk Hunter. “Discipline is part of the world. If it helps lead to more success, it’s worth it. You never know for sure if you’re doing the thing until years later, and Chelsea gets all the credit for that.”
Hayes graduated from Butler with an associate degree and headed to Louisiana Tech, five hours north of New Orleans in Ruston.
The Fat Man
Gary Stanley has been the head track and field coach at Louisiana Tech for 27 years, but he grew up in New Orleans. So when he first met Hayes, he recognized something in her that he’d once seen in himself.
“She’s polite, of course but there’s that wall that’s always up,” Stanley said. “And that’s just being raised in New Orleans. You don’t let strangers in. You don’t back down from a fight.
“And that’s not really how you get ahead in life.”
Slowly but surely, the walls began to come down in Hayes’ personal life at the same time Stanley and Jackson began to up their expectations about what her ceiling was as an athlete.
“At first, we thought she might be able to score some points for us at the national meet,” Stanley said. “Then, we started to think she might be able to make the Olympic Trials. About a year ago, I think we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, I think she might actually have a shot at making this team.’ ”
Something else had also changed for Hayes. She’d fallen in love.
Quinn Giles, now a senior free safety for Louisiana Tech, met Hayes when they both arrived on campus in the summer of 2009 and pursued her for a year before she finally agreed to go out with him. They’ve been together ever since.
“I guess I was a little mean to him,” Hayes said, laughing. “It was like a year after we’d met and I saw him in the training room and he’d put on some muscles so I made some joke about him getting a fat head with his fat muscles and he was like, ‘I think I lost your number, you want to do something?’ And then he took me to the movies.
“I guess I’ve just been calling him ‘Fat Man’ ever since, just like a joke between us.”
Giles, who led Louisiana Tech with four interceptions last season, is from nearby Shreveport, La., where the Bulldogs open the season against Texas A&M on Aug. 30.
“She kept shooting me down but I kept coming back, and I guess when she saw I’d been working out and had some muscles on me, she liked that,” Giles said, laughing. “(Hayes) is amazing, man. I can’t say it enough. I’m in awe of what she’s accomplished and everything she’s been through.”
Hayes received her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Louisiana Tech at the end of last year but kept taking classes last year so she could complete her final seasons of indoor and outdoor track — finishing second in the long jump at indoor nationals and third at outdoor nationals.
She finished her career at Tech as a six-time All-American in jumps and sprints, and received the Joe Kearney Award as the Western Athletic Conference’s top female athlete in May — a first for a Lady Techster.
“When we started to set goals for her a year ago, the thing we focused on was making the Olympic team,” Jackson said. “And through everything she accomplished this year, that was what was always still out there for her. Through all the success and setbacks she kept her focus on making it to London.”
After falling flat in qualifying at the Olympic Trials for the 100 meters, Hayes quickly turned her attention to the long jump.
Sitting in fifth place with five attempts left in the finals on July 1, she reeled off four straight fouls before Jackson’s pep talk. When she landed on her final attempt, the first thing she saw was the white flag to signal the jump was good.
The next thing she saw was her distance — 23 feet, 3½ inches — breaking her personal best by 17 inches and putting her, momentarily, into first place. Hayes finished second after five-time national champion Brittney Reese won her protest of a foul call on her final jump of 23-5½.
But that was all Hayes needed. Now, London calls.
She turned down an opportunity to train in Birmingham, England, to stay in Louisiana and keep her training routine the same with Jackson.
Giles will be there with her for the opening ceremony on Friday, but has to return to Ruston for training camp and will watch, along with Joyce and Chelsea’s big brothers and the rest of the world when she competes in the long jump Aug. 7-8.
The entire Louisiana Tech track and field staff will be in London when Hayes competes.
“In all of my years of coaching, Chelsea is unique because of not only what she’s been through but because of what she’s accomplished,” Stanley said. “Remember what I said about being from New Orleans? Well, I guess there are some things you should always be stubborn about your dreams being one of them.”