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Padecky: Byron Craighead takes the adventurous path to Sochi


Byron Craighead, the Santa Rosa JC legend on so many levels, is going to the Sochi Winter Olympics as a certified athletic trainer for USA Bobsled. That sounds cool and I can't wait to tell you about it.

But after I tell you about the cattle drive.

Two weeks ago, Craighead was a wrangler on an Idaho cattle drive. He and five other cowboys pushed, prodded and guided 300 head 40 miles for 3? days. Craighead fell off his horse once and shrugged.

"I don't like to be cooped up," said the man who was the first certified athletic trainer at a California community college.

I really want to tell you about the Sochi thing.

But after I tell you about Craighead riding that bucking bronco.

Years ago, and for four summers, Craighead was the athletic trainer on the professional rodeo circuit. He asked a professional rodeo rider, David Olds, if he could ride one of his steeds in professional competition. Olds first put Craighead on a saddle over a bale of hay, showed him the grip, the expected motion of the animal. Olds then put Craighead on a bucking machine before he allowed Craighead to ride a live animal.

"There's a picture of me at the rodeo upside down, my right hand barely holding onto the stirrup, my feet are up in the air, my head is pointed to the ground, just a fraction of a second before the horse threw me," said Craighead, inducted into the SRJC Hall of Fame in 2012. "I love that picture."

How long did Craighead stay on the horse?

"Apparently not long enough."

I do want to tell you how Craighead landed the Sochi gig.

But after I tell you about Craighead and the headlocks.

For four years in the early '90s, Craighead was a trainer for USA Wrestling. Curious he was, on the sport, on the athletic ability, on what kind of stamina it would take to wrestle. He always had heard of the stellar fitness of elite wrestlers. His curiosity large, his 170-pound body small, Craighead wanted to wrestle the heavyweights.

"You should have seen me," said Craighead. who was a trainer for the Oakland Raiders from 1971-75. "I was this rabbit they were chasing all over the mat. It was a lot of fun."

I promise, the Sochi story is coming.

But after I tell you about the clothing swap with the Russian.

Before the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, Craighead was with U.S. bobsledders at the World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. A Russian official — the huge man a complete visual Russian stereotype with fur cap and fur coat and furry broad shoulders — spied Craighead.

"You cold, doctor?" the Russian asked.

"No, I'm fine," said Craighead, who retired at SRJC in 2007 after 36 years of teaching health sciences at the school as well as being the athletic trainer for the school's 21 sports.

"No, you not," the Russian said. The man left and returned later with a parka with his country's name and Olympic rings on it. It was one of those thick Russian parkas a lot of bears had died for. And you wouldn't be able to buy the parka at Walmart, if you know what I mean. What did Craighead do?

"I gave him an SRJC sweatshirt," Craighead said.

The Sochi story is coming. I promise.

But after I tell you about the dancing in Lake Placid, N.Y.

At the conclusion of the World Bobsled Championships of a few years ago, the custom was for athletes and team personnel to find a place to consume an adult beverage and let the proverbial hair down. At tony but tiny Lake Placid, options are few. As fate would have it, Craighead found himself at a joint that was hopping with nearly everyone in the world there.

"There are two things that travel universally throughout the world, music and a smile," Craighead said. "I love to dance and smile."

He stayed up all night dancing and laughing.

"I was dancing with all the countries," Craighead said.

Now I'm ready to tell you about how Craighead is going to his third Winter Olympic Games. The stories you have just read serve as examples on how and why this happened.

First, Craighead believes in sweat equity. Whether it's driving cattle or staying up past midnight to treat an athlete, the 67-year-old has no problem giving the effort.

"Brian Shimer (USA bobsled head coach) heard me working on an athlete in his hotel room at 6 a.m.," Craighead said. "Brian came into the room and asked me why I was there so early. 'To get him ready to race,' I said. Brian liked that."

Second, athletes, especially athletes in the sliding sports, appreciate team personnel willing to experience the physical demands involved hurtling down a track at 80 miles per hour. As previously described, Craighead is not shy about putting his body out there to be abused. He loves adventure.

So in 1993, Craighead went down the one-mile run at La Plagne, France. The track was built for the 1992 Albertville Winter Games. He did skeleton, then part of a two-man run, then part of a four-man run. La Plagne is regarded as the most demanding and dangerous of all the world's runs.

"The athletes came up to me later and asked if the rumor was true, that I had actually gone down La Plagne," Craighead said. "I said I did. They went WOW. They couldn't believe it. I always felt it essential that if I was going to treat someone, I should know what those physical demands feel like."

Third, and probably most important, the athletes and coaches and administrators have to like you. Craighead will leave Dec. 22 and return Feb. 26 from the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Games. That's more than two months of everyday discussion, decisions and inevitable disagreements. People can get crabby seeing each other every day with the sound of the steaming teapot of an Olympics whistling in their ears.

Last February, USA Bobsled personnel were asked to choose who they wanted as their trainer for the Sochi Games. The athletes' vote carried the heaviest influence. Then came the bobsled coaches. Then the team doctors.

Byron Craighead received all the votes. Yes, ALL of them. Rumor has it that never happened before. Craighead was surprised. He thought his age — he'll turn 68 just before Sochi — would disqualify him. So what did he do? The only thing he could do.

"I'm a sucker for a limp," Craighead said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.