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 and Patrick.
Jim wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and be a speed skater, a sentiment preserved for posterity in a family scrap-book. 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."