American speed skater
Jack Shea's two Olympic gold medals were only the beginning of his lifelong involvement with the Olympic Games. After his speed skating victories in his hometown of Lake Placid in 1932, Shea raised another Olympian, his son James, while staying involved in the Olympic movement. Shea was a major figure in the drive to bring the winter Olympics back to Lake Placid in 1980, and in 2001, Shea became the patriarch of the first family ever to have three generations of Olympians when James Shea's son, Jim Jr., qualified to compete in skeleton at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Shea was a sophomore at Dartmouth College when the Olympics came to Lake Placid in 1932. The winter Olympics were only eight years old then, but Lake Placid speed skaters had already made their mark: the first gold medal in the first Winter Olympics, the 1924 Chamonix, France, games, was won by a young man from Lake Placid named Charles Jewtraw. Shea dreamed of following in Jewtraw's footsteps, and hours after taking the Olympic oath on behalf of the American team he did, winning the 500-meter speed skating event, the first event of the 1932 games. Shea also took the 1500-meter, giving him one-third of the American team's six gold medals that year.
Much had changed in Shea's life by the time the 1936 Olympics rolled around. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1934, married, and spent a year at Albany Law School, but he was forced to drop out when the Depression removed his family's ability to cover the tuition. Shea returned to Lake Placid and worked at his family's market and as a mailman.
Shea was still one of the top speed skaters in the world in 1936, but he did not compete in the Olympics that year, which were held in Berlin, Germany. Shea was a political science major at Dartmouth, so he was perhaps more aware than most of the dangers posed by the Nazi ideology. Also, he knew and respected many Jewish customers who patronized his family's market, and he did not want to give legitimacy to a regime which was so anti-Semetic. Some say that the rabbi of the community asked him personally not to participate.
Although Shea would not compete in the Olympics again, he remained involved with them. Shea was active in Lake Placid community life for years, rubbing shoulders with the numerous past and future Olympians who lived and trained there. While working as the supervisor of the township which includes Lake Placid, Shea was instrumental in bringing the Olympics back to Lake
Placid in 1980. Shea also raised an Olympian, his son James, who competed in several skiing events in 1964 but did not medal. In the years before his death, Shea was outspoken in his opposition to holding the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China because of that country's checkered human rights record.
A New Olympic Record
The Shea family reached a milestone on December 20, 2001. That day, when Shea's grandson Jim Jr. qualified for the Olympic skeleton team, they became the first family ever to have three generations of Olympians. Shea was there, watching the World Cup skeleton meet in Lake Placid, when the youngest Shea qualified, and he was looking forward to watching his grandson compete at the Olympics in two months. Other Olympians and Olympic organizers were impressed with the family as well, and plans were made to honor Shea, the oldest living American to have won a gold medal at a Winter Olympics, at the Salt Lake City games. Jim Shea Jr. was selected to recite the Olympic oath for the American team, just as his grandfather had seventy years before.
But Shea would not be there to be honored, to see his grandson take the Olympic oath, or to see him come from behind on the last segment of the course to win the gold medal in skeleton by a mere five hundredths of a second. Shea was struck by an allegedly drunk driver less than a mile from his Lake Placid home on January 21, 2002. He died the next day.
The Olympic Saga Continues
Shea's Olympic story did not end with his death. It did not even end with Jim Shea Jr.'s emotional victory, which Jim Jr. attributed to his grandfather's spirit riding with him that day. Shea's image rode with him as well, on a funeral card bearing the man's picture which Jim Jr. tucked into his helmet and tearfully displayed to the crowds, who were chanting "U-S-Shea! U-S-Shea!," at the end of his run. Shea's Olympic saga ended with the return of the skates which Shea wore when he skated his way to gold in 1932.
A young Japanese skier, Katsumi Yamada, also competed at Lake Placid in 1932. Shea gave his winning skates to Yamada as a gesture of international friendship, and in return, Yamada gave Shea his cross-country skis. In 1955, Yamada gave the skates to a coworker's son, Kozo Yoshida, who was an aspiring speed skater. (Coincidently, Yamada and Yoshida's father worked together at the city hall of Sapporo, Japan, the city where the 1972 Winter Olympics were held.) Yoshida wore the skates to compete in the Japanese high school skating championships for three straight years, and then wore them occasionally for recreational skating for the next forty-odd years.
Yoshida was in his sixties when he read about Shea's death in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. In a ceremony a few day's after Jim Shea Jr.'s winning skeleton run, the managing editor of Yomiuri Shimbun, Kazuhiro Takaoka, unwrapped the skates and presented them to the Jim Sheas, Jr. and Sr. Tears sprung to Jim Shea Sr.'s eyes when he saw what was on the underside of one skate. "It's my dad's signature, see right there," Jim Shea Sr. was quoted as saying by Bill Dwyre in the Los Angeles Times. "This is unbelievable. I'm not sure I really believed it until I saw that." Jim Shea Sr. told the assembled reporters that he planned to donate the skates and the skis to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum.
|1910||Born September 7 in Lake Placid, New York|
|1932||Competes in Olympics in Lake Placid|
|1934||Graduates from Dartmouth College|
|1934||Marries Elizabeth Stearnes|
|1936||Refuses to compete in Olympics in protest of their being held in Nazi Germany|
|1958-78||Serves as town justice of Lake Placid|
|1964||Shea's son James competes in cross-country and nordic combined skiing at Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria|
|1974-83||Serves as township supervisor of North Elba|
|1980||Instrumental in bringing Winter Olympics back to Lake Placid|
|2001||Becomes member of only family with three generations of Olympians when grandson Jim Shea Jr. qualifies for the U. S. Olympic skeleton team in Lake Placid December 20|
|2001||Carries the Olympic flame in Lake Placid December 29|
|2002||Dies January 22 after being struck by an allegedly drunk driver on the 21st|
|2002||Jim Shea Jr. wins Olympic gold in skeleton February 19|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1929||National speedskating championships|
|1930||National speedskating championships|
|1932||Gold Medal in Olympic 500- and 1500-meter speed skating|
|2000||Became first recipient of U.S. Speedskating's Jack Shea Award|
In a gesture of which Shea, a lifelong embodiment of the Olympic spirit, would surely have approved, Jim Shea Jr. mailed one of the runners off of his winning skeleton sled to Yoshida in return. "This is what the Olympics are all about," Jim Shea Jr. said, as quoted by Dwyre. "My grandfather loved the friendships. He loved to do nice things for the other athletes."
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Barron, David. "Third-Generation Olympian Embraces Oath." Houston Chronicle (February 8, 2002): 8.
Blinebury, Fran. "Heaven Sent: Elder Shea's Spirit Alive and Golden in Grandson's Stirring Run." Houston Chronicle (February 21, 2002): 1.
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"Dead Star's Commercial Plays On." New York Post (January 31, 2002): 70.
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United States Olympic Committee. http://www.olympic-usa.org/ (October 16, 2002).
Sketch by Julia Bauder