Jim Shea Jr. didn't set out to make history when he began
learning to skeleton. "The Olympics was never the idea," the
33-year-old Shea says. "The idea was to slide well and have fun.
I was like a surfer, looking for the perfect ride."
In 1994 he was taking classes at North Country College and
waiting tables in Lake Placid, N.Y., thinking about the next
phase of his life, like a jillion other men in their 20s. While
growing up in West Hartford, Conn., Shea had been a fine
lacrosse goalie and hockey defenseman--he once laid out Brian
Leetch, now the All-Star defenseman for the New York Rangers,
with a bodycheck when the two played in a local youth
league--but those competitive pursuits were behind him.
Jim Jr. had been coming to Lake Placid, his father and
grandfather's childhood home, since he was a boy. His parents
had relocated there in 1988--his father runs the Mirror Lake
Liquor Store--and in the fall three generations of Shea men
would head to the family's deer-hunting camp on the wooded
slopes of Mount Van Hoevenberg. Leading the parade would be the
grandfather and patriarch, Jack, now 91 years old and sharp as a
skinning knife. "We call him Chief," says Jim Sr., who's 63,
"because he's the leader of the tribe, and he never makes a
mistake. The point of hunting camp is telling stories, good food
and drink, going to bed at 8 p.m. and waking up when you wake
up. The point isn't to kill a deer."
The two-bedroom cabin without plumbing or electricity had been
built by James Shea, Jim Jr.'s great-grandfather, around 1920.
James was the first Shea to settle in Lake Placid--in 1888 he
opened a butcher shop on Main Street--and he logged the hillside
on which the camp is set. The camp is about a mile from Lake
Placid's Olympic bobsled run, and in the early-evening darkness
of late fall the Shea men can see the lights and hear the
loudspeakers along the course announcing the times of the sleds
as they race down the track. The first time he found himself
listening to these announcements, they sounded wild and
exhilarating to Jim Jr., an athlete in search of a sport. "I'd
like to try that sometime," he said.
December 17, 2001
No blaring trumpets or fanfare. A distant set of lights, a faint
rumble, a vague allure--that's more the manner in which a new
phase of life is introduced. Jim Jr. tried the bobsled, first as
a brakeman, then as a driver. After a couple of seasons of no
particular success, he saw something else that fired his
imagination: the burgeoning sport of skeleton, a face-first
hurtle down a twisting, icy track on a 70-pound steel and
fiberglass sled whose bare-bones appearance gave the event its
name. Jim Jr.'s success on the skeleton not only led to the
event's inclusion in next year's Winter Games in Salt Lake City
but also means that if he walks into the opening ceremonies on
Feb. 8 as a member of the U.S. team (final skeleton selections
will be made on Jan. 7 but, barring injury, Shea seems a lock to
be chosen), he'll make his family the first to produce three
generations of Winter Olympians competing in three different
The Sheas' story starts with the first Winter Games: Chamonix,
France, 1924. It was a different world. Only 16 nations
competed, and only one American took home a gold medal. He was
Charles Jewtraw, a speed skater from Lake Placid who won the
"Charlie Jewtraw put Lake Placid on the map," says Jack Shea,
America's oldest living Winter gold medalist. "Speed skating was
here in the wintertime, and every kid between Lake Placid and
Saranac Lake wanted to be like him. We thought they should erect
a statue of him in town. Every Saturday there were races on
Mirror Lake, and all the businesses in town closed. It was how
the community got together. When I said my prayers before bed, I
ended the same way every night: 'Lord give me the opportunity to
repeat what Charles Jewtraw did in the Olympic Games.'"
In the best tradition of improbable small-town sports stories,
Jack's prayers were answered. Lake Placid was awarded the 1932
Winter Games, and Jack developed into the Lake Placid Phenom,
winning the North American sprint skating championships in 1929
and '30 while still in high school. When Franklin Roosevelt,
then governor of New York, visited Lake Placid in 1930 to see
how preparations were going for the Olympics, organizers asked
Jack to show Roosevelt the site of the new speed skating oval.
"He drove up in a big open Packard," Jack recalls, "with that
famous smile and his distinctive cigarette holder, and after we
had talked, he said, 'Young man, maybe I'll see you here two
years from now.' That's one thing that sticks out in my mind,
because when I crossed the line first, I turned and waved to him
in the stands. It was like history coming true."
Jack won two gold medals in 1932, in the 500- and 1,500-meter
races, but they didn't change his life in any material way. It
was the Depression. Crowds at the Games were small. When he
returned to Dartmouth after his triumphs, Jack received few
plaudits. "I was disappointed that my skating wasn't recognized
by my classmates, and that I developed no special friendships
with the professors for what I did," he says. "I was just one of
the crowd. When I received my diploma in 1934, the college
president didn't so much as give me a nod of his head or a smile
Yet the Olympic experience had changed Jack. "A friendly
gathering between nations in which countries come together in
the spirit of peace, that's the Olympic ideal," says Jack.
"There's never been a time when that ideal wasn't worth striving
for. The people who come to the Games are really carriers. They
carry home, like spokes from the hub of a wheel, everything
they've seen and learned at the Olympics."
In 1936, when the Winter Games were held in
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Jack sensed a different message
emanating from the host country. It wasn't a spirit of peace
that was being promoted, but one of military aggression and
anti-Semitism. "I majored in political science and studied
current events, so I was aware of what was going on in Germany,"
he says. "Lake Placid had a large, important and very nice
Jewish community that did a lot of business with my dad's store,
and when a local committee spoke out against Americans competing
in the German Olympics, I agreed. I wouldn't defend my titles. I
received a lot of adverse comments about that from other
athletes, but I've always been proud of that position."
So Jack gave up speed skating and went to work for the post
office delivering mail. He remained active in local politics, at
varying times holding the positions of town justice, town
supervisor and chairman of the board of supervisors of Essex
County (in which Lake Placid is located). He also helped his
wife, Elizabeth, raise their four kids, Jack Jr., Jim, Michael
Jim wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and be a speed
skater, a sentiment preserved for posterity in a family
scrapbook. A photograph taken of Jack in 1921, when he was 10,
shows him coiled on speed skates before the start of a race on
Mirror Lake. The photo has been touchingly defaced by the
handwriting of a seven-or eight-year-old boy. Young Jim had
scrawled in pencil, "I want to be like him."
Speed skating, though, wasn't Jim's sport. Cross-country skiing
was. As a member of the 1961 NCAA champion University of Denver
team, he finished third in the Nordic combined and went on to
compete for the U.S. biathlon team while serving in the Army. In
'64 he made the Olympic team and competed in three events in
Innsbruck, finishing 27th in Nordic combined, 48th in the 30-km
cross-country race and 13th in the 4x10-km relay.
"I was never a medal contender," he says, "but representing my
country gave me a lot of satisfaction. Not that many people did
cross-country in the late 1950s, and we had to beg the ski
companies to let us go through the factory and squeeze the skis
before we bought them. So it was very different from today. When
I got back, I had to go through the same job-hunting process as
everyone else. I remember the thrill of going to Hart Schaffner
& Marx in New York to be fitted for the blue blazer with the
Olympic shield, and I still have every piece of my opening
ceremonies uniform except that goofy white hat."
In 1972 Jim returned to the Olympics as a coach of the U.S.
biathlon team in Sapporo. When Lake Placid hosted the '80 Games,
Jack was on the organizing committee. That, it seemed, was where
the Sheas' direct Olympic involvement would end.
Even after Jim Jr. took up the skeleton, no one considered it a
road to Salt Lake City. The headfirst cousin of the luge,
skeleton had been an event in the 1928 Games and again in '48
but not since. One thing that attracted Shea to the skeleton was
its affordability. "A bobsled costs $45,000," he says. "My first
skeleton was $200. The first time I went down, I scared myself
half to death, but my immediate reaction was, How fast can I get
back to the top?"
The sleds reach speeds of more than 80 mph, while the sliders,
wearing only paper-thin Lycra-spandex suits and visored helmets,
try to negotiate the turns with neither brakes nor a steering
mechanism. (A slider shifts his head and shoulders to steer.) "I
don't wear any padding," Jim Jr. says, "because if I make a
mistake, I want to remember it. In a bobsled you bang into the
wall, and you don't feel anything."
Jim Jr. made the U.S. skeleton team for the first time in 1995,
which meant he had earned the privilege of paying his way to
Europe to participate in the three-week-long World Cup season.
He sold his Jeep to cover his travel costs and told Jack he was
going to bring him back a trophy. "The Chief laughed and said,
'You may bring me back a trophy, but that's not the most
important thing you'll bring back,'" Jim Jr. says. "He was
talking about a lifetime of memories, friendships and
experiences. And he was right."
Jim Jr. showed up at his first World Cup race, in Altenberg,
Germany, in January 1995, with no high-tech gear and no idea
what to expect. "The Austrians drove up in their minivans with
skintight uniforms, and when I introduced myself they wouldn't
even say hi," Jim Jr. says. "I was so outgunned, it wasn't funny."
It was a humbling tour, as were the subsequent European circuits
of 1995-96 and '96-97. When it came time to go home after the
'97 races, Jim Jr. made a decision. "He told me he was staying
in Europe," then U.S. coach Peter Vaiciulis says. "Jimmy decided
to get serious and make the transition from a club slider to a
World Cup slider."
"The coach told me, 'Jimmy, your sled's broken, you don't have
transportation, you don't have money, you don't speak German and
you're angry. Let's go home,'" Jim Jr. recalls. "But I wouldn't.
I was either going to do it right or I'd quit. I spent the next
two months hauling my 70-pound sled and a hockey bag full of
clothes through Europe. I'd hitchhike or get rides from the
Brits, who called me their pet Yank. One of them gave me his old
sled. I lived on $325 for two months, eating bread and hot dogs
with lots of mustard. I didn't shower for three weeks at a time
and would sleep in a four-man bobsled in the storage sheds. But
I found my way to the tracks."
Sliders from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, recognizing Jim
Jr.'s dedication, started treating him with respect.
Occasionally one would give him a pointer on the fastest line at
a track. The British sliders shared their training slots with
him. At the 1998 World Cup event in Altenberg, where he'd
practiced for three weeks the previous winter, Jim Jr. became
the first American to win a World Cup skeleton race. "They
didn't even have an American flag to hang up," he says.
Always a strong starter, Jim Jr. had paid his dues and learned
the subtleties of his sport. He was the top U.S. finisher in
every race in the 1998-99 season, and when the 1999 world
championships were held in Altenberg, Jim Jr. won.
That was the final nudge skeleton needed to gain entrance to the
Olympics. The sport already had powerful supporters--IOC member
Prince Albert of Monaco, a four-time Olympic bobsledder, has a
bodyguard who's a skeleton sledder, and Salt Lake City's
organizing committee president, Mitt Romney, was a proponent.
The host country has a strong say in which new sports are added
to the Games, and with an American as its world champion,
skeleton went to the top of the list.
"It would be so fulfilling for the family to see Jimmy walk into
the Olympic stadium," says Jack, "but what makes me most proud
is that he understands what the Olympic ideal is about."
Jim Jr. may not be the favorite to stand atop the podium in
February, because the skeleton track at Park City is regarded as
a "gliding track," with gentle turns that are not well suited to
Jim Jr.'s aggressive style. He finished fourth there in the 2001
worlds. "The Park City track is like a country road," he says.
"I'd send my mom down it."
Not that he's complaining. "I'm a product of my environment,"
Jim Jr. says. "I'm 33 years old, no house, no job, no wife and
no money saved. Yet once I walk into that stadium for opening
ceremonies and see my father and grandfather in the stands, I've
"I was never a medal contender," says Jim (below, in 1964),
"but representing my country gave me a lot of satisfaction."
"I don't wear padding because if I make a mistake, I want to
feel it," says Jim Jr. "In a bobsled you don't feel anything."