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.
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 sports.
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 500-meter sprint.
"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 of recognition."
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."