Everyone says I'm crazy, but I like doing things that scare me,"
says Jim Shea. Good thing, because Shea is the U.S.'s best hope
for a medal in what is probably the scariest sport in the Winter
Olympics. Skeleton, a sledding event that will be making its
reappearance at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City after a 54-year
hiatus, is performed headfirst and facedown. But that is where
the similarity to any childhood pastime ends.
Skeleton begins with a 50-meter "push," in which
sliders--wearing helmets, skintight rubber bodysuits and
steel-cleated toe caps--sprint in a bent-over position, pushing
their sleds along the icy carpet toward the starting line. Just
as they pass an electronic time sensor, they fling themselves
onto three-foot-long, 16-inch-wide fiberglass-and-steel sleds
and, with their chins hovering an inch above the ice and their
arms pressed tight against their sides, use minute movements of
their heads and shoulders to negotiate the precipitous curves of
an ice-covered bobsled track. Along this slick slope, sliders
travel 75 to 85 mph, appearing to observers as nothing more than
Day-Glo blurs against the glistening surface; their sleds cease
As more and more extreme sports are upgraded from recreational
to competitive status, it is not surprising that the Olympics
have embraced skeleton, luge's lunatic cousin. After several
years of lobbying, which included putting Utah governor Mike
Leavitt on a sled for an experimental run, skeleton advocates
got the IOC nod last October. Practiced for more than a century
by Europeans on a course in St. Moritz called the Cresta,
skeleton was featured alongside bobsled in the 1928 and '48
Winter Games in that same Swiss city--long before luge would
debut in 1964. Although Jennison Heaton of the U.S. won the gold
in skeleton in '28, and his younger brother, John, took the
silver in both '28 and '48, most people on this side of the
Atlantic didn't take note of the sport until 1982, when five men
calling themselves the U.S. Skeleton Team started training for
World Cup competition on the bobsled run in Lake Placid, N.Y.
While the sport has yet to gain enough attention to provide the
U.S. team with sponsors or its athletes with endorsements,
Americans have been flexing their skeleton muscle in recent
international competitions: In the World Cup standings the U.S.
men rank second, behind Great Britain, and the women fourth,
behind Great Britain, Switzerland and Germany.
Among the four men and three women on the U.S. team's World Cup
roster are a stunt actor (Chris Soule), a medical technologist
(Babs Isak) and a former nationally ranked junior Alpine skier
(Tricia Stumpf). But volunteer fireman Shea is in the best
position to win a medal in Salt Lake City. During national team
selection races last year, Shea, 31, set a Park City (Utah)
track record of 50.59, and he remains the most decorated
national team member, with five medals in World Cup events.
For Shea, merely to participate in the Olympics will be a
record-setting feat: As the grandson of Jack Shea, 89, who
speed-skated to two golds in the 1932 Games, and the son of Jim
Shea, who skied Nordic combined and cross-country in 1964, Shea
will become the first third-generation Olympian competing in an
event different from that of either of his forebears. "I have to
admit, I never saw this coming," says Jim Sr., who runs the Shea
family's liquor store in Lake Placid. "Jimmy played some good
lacrosse and a little hockey while he was growing up, but he
didn't get hooked on the skeleton thing until a few years ago. I
think he really has his head on straight about it, too."
Better signs, perhaps, of young Shea's Olympic potential were
those activities that seemed to indicate a few loose screws:
"urban surfing" on the hoods of moving cars, popping wheelies on
his Yamaha motorcycle and cliff diving--naked--off a 60-foot
precipice into Lake Placid. Shea tried competitive bobsledding
in the early '90s, but, he says, he "couldn't afford a $20,000
piece of equipment." Just one year after his first skeleton run,
in 1994, when he showed up at the local course wearing a beat-up
hunting jacket and lugging "an old sled that was like a
Studebaker to the other guys' Ferraris," he says, he was named
U.S. rookie of the year. He became so obsessed with skeleton
that in 1997, after finishing in the back of the pack at a World
Cup event in Europe, he stayed in Germany, one of the world's
most serious skeleton pockets, until he had mastered the sport.
"I had no money, so I slept in sled sheds and hitchhiked my way
back and forth from the slopes," says Shea. "The Germans didn't
know what to make of me. I was like the Happy Gilmore of
skeleton." The next year he gave the U.S. its first World Cup
gold medal, and last February, in Altenberg, Germany, he became
the first American to win the world championship.
Shea, who is a self-described "nothing special" 5'11" and 180
pounds, spends many solitary hours a day at the Mount Van
Hoevenberg course, where he trains when at home. He does no more
than three runs in an afternoon; further exposure to level 5
g-forces would produce "unbearable headaches," he says. Like all
the top sliders, he precedes each run with a "track walk" in
which he memorizes the location of every angle, rut, bump and
puddle. "The Europeans say you must treat the track like a
beautiful, curvaceous woman," says Shea, who studies the track
for an hour before a run but relies most heavily on his feel for
it during a race. "If you don't give her a lot of attention, she
will break your heart and a few bones along with it."
When not courting his Olympic dreams, Shea attends to the other
woman in his life, girlfriend Jessie Colby, and his tight-knit
extended family, whose members, "with their background of
success, provide an amazing source of inspiration," he says. The
only support that Shea, along with the rest of his teammates,
still covets is that of the U.S. public, whose interest in
skeleton in 2002 is essential to the survival of the sport
Stateside--not to mention the subsistence of its star athletes,
who must pay their way to almost every competition they enter.
"It's so accessible--anyone who has ever gone sledding has
gotten a taste of skeleton," says Shea. "I give it two years to
catch on like wildfire."
COLOR PHOTO: NANCIE BATTAGLIA Chin up Shea's nose is oh so close to the ice as he and his sled hurtle down the track.
"I had no money, so I slept in sled sheds. I was like the Happy
Gilmore of skeleton."