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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Jim Shea: The Moonshine Gold Medallist

When one compares the Winter and Summer Olympics, the former appears to have the more potential for death and dismemberment when it comes to the individual sports. For every dangerous moment involving a bicycle travelling at about 80 kph down a rainy road in the individual or team time trial at the Summer Olympics, there is a seemingly mad bobsledder and his crew racing their aerodynamic bob down a twisting ice track at speeds at times in excess of 120 kph. The combination of speed, ice, snow and sharp blades has a habit of testing the bravery of the human spirit and the fragility of the human body when applied in the Winter Olympic Games. And in the case of the skeleton, it could be argued this is the most frightening of all the most dangerous of Olympic sports.

The skeleton is essentially a head first sled ride down a toboganning, luge or bobsled track, where the rider (weighing no more that 115 kilos for men, 92 kilos for women) attempts to set the fastest combined times over two runs. Originating in Switzerland the sport was added to the Winter Olympic program for the St Moritz games of 1928. However like some other sports on both the Winter and Summer program it was an infrequent event, not to appear at the Lake Placid 1932 or Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936 Winter Olympics. Skeleton briefly returned post-war, again at St Moritz in 1948 but was then again being withdrawn as a gold medal event. It took some serious effort on the part of the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Togogganing (FIBT) to reinstate the sport as a viable candidate for reinclusion on the Winter Olympic program, which eventually took place in 1999. The next opportunity for a full skeleton competition with gold medals available to both male and female champions was to be Salt Lake City 2002.

Whilst the FIBT and the IOC were working through the issues of bring skeleton back into the fold as a Winter Olympic event a third generation winter sportsman was aiming to participate in the Salt Lake City Olympics as part of the US tea. Jim Shea, born in Hartford Connecticut had prime Winter Olympian genes as part of his heritage. His grandfather Jack Shea had won 2 gold medals in the speed skating program at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, and had also taken the athletes' oath at those games. His father Jim Shea Senior competed in three Nordic skiing events at the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. Plus all three generations lived within a very short distance of the host venue of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics.

Jim Shea Junior had originally been attracted to skeleton after switching from bobsled when he balanced out the costs of the equipment ($30,000US for a bobsled versus $3000US for a skeleton sled). Yet there was another factor; as David Wallechinsky records Jim Jnr said that:

"Bobsled is the champagne of thrills, skeleton is the moonshine of thrills."

With this attitude and after a rather unsuccessful 1997 World Cup season Shea decided to travel to Europe to improve his skills. With little money Shea protected his initial meagre resources by sleeping in barns and working on sled courses for free runs. Improving as the years passed he became the first American to win a World Cup race as well as a World Championship in skeleton (1999) and Goodwill Games gold (2000). However there were other and arguably better prospects for winning the US it's first gold for skeleton since 1932, with Chris Soule ending the 2001-2002 season in second place overall, behind Gregor Stähli (Switzerland) and in front of Martin Rettl (Austria).

Jim Jnr's 2001-2002 results however secured him a place on the US team and then, with only 17 days to go until the Salt Lake City opening ceremony tragically his grandfather Jack Shea was killed in a motor vehicle accident. This changed Jim Jnr's pursuit for gold into something more than just a desire to win for himself and for his country. As a tribute to the grandson, the father and the grandfather Jim Snr and Jim Jnr were the penultimate torchbearers at the Salt Lake City opening ceremony before handing the flame over to the 1980 US Ice Hockey team. To add further honour to Jim Jnr he was also given the opportunity to follow in Jack Shea's footsteps, reading the oath on behalf of all competitors at the 2002 Winter Olympics. No matter the form of his competitors there was an incredible amount of sentiment and goodwill riding with Jim Shea Jnr as he began his quest for skeleton gold.

The competition for the men's skeleton was held at the Park City sled track, dropping over 100 metres from start to finish and running over 1300 metres long. Gregor Stähli was the gold medal favourite, in part due to his success from the 2001-2002 season but also perhaps because his father Buddy was considered 'the father of Swiss skeleton'. Yet unfortunately for Stähli on the day of competition the weather was slightly against him. February 20th was a snowy day, and the conditions meant the track became slower for the earlier sliders. Stähli's time was approximately 2 seconds behind what he should have achieved, opening a gap for others such at Rettl and Shea. Rettl's time was only marginally quicker than Stähli's, with Shea then taking his skeleton sled down the course in 50.89 seconds (a 0.13 lead over the Austrian Rettl). Surprisingly an Irish skeleton racer Clifton Wrottesley was also in contention, finishing the first heat in third place.

Snow continued to fall as the second heat proceeded. As the sliders took their turns heading face down the track the times to beat were Shea's, Rettl's and Wrottesley's. Stähli had a far better run but with his 50.99 was still languishing behind the top three. Wrottesley dropped in pace losing valuable time. Then Rettl matched Stähli's second heat time, which in turn gave Shea a definitive target. He had to slide a 51.12 for gold. Although Jim Jnr had a notoriously slow start there was an ace up his sleeve. In his helmet was a photograph of his recently killed grandfather, the dual gold medallist Jack Shea.

For most of the run Shea was 0.14 seconds behind Rettl's time. However at the final split the gap had been narrowed by the American to a mere one-hundredth of a second. With the momentum, the loud American crowd and perhaps his grandfather's spirit behind him Shea continued downwards, sliding into the finish with a second run time of 51.07 seconds. His overall time was 1.41.96; five hundredths of a second in front of Rettl. The gold was Shea's. Mobbed by his fellow skeleton sliders who until then had been his competitors Shea pulled the photograph out of his helmet. The crowd erupted, chanting "USA! Shea!" repeatedly. And then Jim Shea Jnr paid tribute to his grandfather Jack:

"I think my grandfather had some unfinished business down here, now he can go up to heaven."


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