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Lake Placid ski legend

Shea inducted into Denver U. hall of fame

November 13, 2014
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Don't think of Jim Shea Sr. as the only Shea in three generations not to win an Olympic medal. Think of him as a Pioneer.

It's true that his father, Jack Shea, won two gold medals in speedskating at the 1932 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid and that his son, Jim "Jimmy" Shea Jr., won a gold medal in skeleton at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. It's also true that Jim Shea Sr. - a member of the U.S. Ski Team during the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria - is the only one of these three not to have his own Wikipedia page. But he's also the only Shea to be inducted into the University of Denver Athletic Hall of Fame.

On Nov. 1, Shea's induction ceremony came more than 53 years after competing in his final DU Pioneers nordic skiing competition.

Article Photos

Jim Shea Sr. receives a plaque while being inducted into the University of Denver Athletic Hall of Fame on Nov. 1. DU Chancellor Rebecca Chopp is on the left, and Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation Peg Bradley-Doppes is on the right.
(Photo courtesy of the Lacey DenHartog, University of Denver)

"I left Lake Placid to go out to the University of Denver because they had a great ski team," Shea said. "I had to work my butt off, and it's nice to be recognized. They were so kind to me. I felt like a king."

Shea was recognized in the hall of fame's "legends" category.

"That means you're old," he said.

At age 76, Shea capped off a successful athletic career by sharing the honor with his family, including his wife Judy, who also attended the university.

"It was a great trip," Shea said. "My whole family was there. Jimmy and his family came from Salt Lake. My daughter (Sarah) and her boys came from Lake Placid. It was really very, very special. It's been 52 years since I've been back to the University of Denver."

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Road to Denver

Shea was born on June 22, 1938, at the Lake Placid General Hospital, the son of Jack and Elizabeth (Stearns) Shea. His father was from Lake Placid, and his mother was originally from Saranac Lake.

Shea began ski jumping when he was 10 years old and became president of the local ski team by the time he was a high school senior. Like many teenagers, he couldn't wait to leave his hometown after graduation.

"I can still remember. It's as vivid as it was yesterday," Shea said. "I was walking up Main Street where the Golden Arrow is. It used to be the beach house for the Grandview Hotel, looking out on Mirror Lake. It was either in the fall or the spring, one of those times of the year back then when it was really kind of depressing because there wasn't anything going on. I said to myself, 'Man, I can't wait to get the hell out of this place and see what the world is all about.' Then about 20 years later, when I was working in Connecticut, I couldn't wait to get back."

When Shea was a senior in high school, he was an avid cross-country skier. One day while training on the old Northwood School cross-country course, which ran parallel to the Mount Whitney Road, he was stopped by a Lake Placid resident who was a senior and member of the ski team at the University of Denver.

"I was out there working out one day, and this yellow Oldsmobile kind of pulled up on the side of the road, and some guy said, 'Hey, hey, what are you doing there?'" Shea said. "It was Craig Lussi, Serge's brother. ... He said, 'What are you doing? What are you doing?' He knew that I had some kind of talent. He said, 'Hey, Jim, come over here and talk to me.' We talked for a while, and he said, 'You ought to come out to the University of Denver. We've got a great ski team. It will be hard for you, but I think you can make it.' And that started a chain of events."

It was 1957, the year Shea graduated from the Lake Placid High School. He had been accepted to St. Lawrence University, where his older brother Jack Jr. graduated that same year. Shea even had a job lined up in Canton, but his life changed in August when he received a telephone call from Denver.

On the phone was Willy Schaeffler, the University of Denver ski team coach whose team had earned its fourth NCAA championship in a row that spring. During his career, he brought 13 national championships to Denver between 1954 and 1970.

"He said, 'Shea, you've got to come out here to the University of Denver,'" Shea said. "And I said, 'Oh, why not?' So I said, 'I'll come out.'"

Two weeks later, Shea received a housing contract in the mail. He signed it and sent it back, thinking he was all set to attend the University of Denver. On Monday, Sept. 16, 1957, he hitched a ride with Lussi, driving from Lake Placid to Denver.

"That was Craig's way of getting anyplace," Shea said. "You just get in a car and go."

Once in Denver, Shea went to the university and found that his housing contract was not enough. There was no admissions application on file.

"My name wasn't on any list," Shea said. "So I tried to take a battery of tests. Long story short, in about a week, I was accepted. It was kind of a rude awakening for a small-town boy to find out how the big world works. And I don't regret it one iota. It opened my eyes to the world. Our team was made up of skiers from all over the world. It was the start of a long, long journey in skiing."

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Denver

The ski team placed second in the NCAA championships during each of Shea's first three years at DU. Then, as a senior during the 1960-1961 season, he was named team captain and an All-American. In March 1961, he led his team to its first NCAA championship since 1957, placing fourth in the cross-country event and sixth in the jump for a combined third-place finish, according to the March 16, 1961, issue of the Lake Placid News. The championship meet, held at Middlebury College's Snow Bowl in Hancock, Vermont, was his final competition for the University of Denver. He graduated in June 1961 with a bachelor's degree in business administration.

"It opened my eyes to a much bigger world than Lake Placid had to offer and I think probably more than St. Lawrence would have had to offer," Shea said about his time at DU. "It was a new world. It was like pulling the shade in the morning and looking outside, and all of a sudden the light comes in."

Denver is also where he met his wife, Judy, an avid alpine skier. In the 1950s, women were not part of the NCAA skiing competitions.

"My ski coach wanted nothing to do with women, girls, training," Jim said. "He didn't have time for that. But there were some diehards like my wife. You know my wife; she doesn't give up on anything."

Judy shadowed the male skiers during their dry-land training exercises.

"I looked over and saw that pretty little girl from West Hartford, Connecticut," Jim said. "So we had a couple of dates, and bam, I was hooked."

Judy graduated with a bachelor's degree from DU in 1962.

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Road back home

After graduating, Jim went to work for National Steel in Portage, Indiana.

"I was there for about two months, and I got drafted into the service," he said. "Because I had the skiing background, I was assigned to the U.S. biathlon training center in Anchorage, Alaska, after all my basic training. And all we did there was ski and shoot."

Jim was assigned to the U.S. Army's Fort Richardson, which had opened the U.S. Modern Winter Biathlon Training Center in 1961. Sven Johanson - a Swedish-born member of the U.S. Ski Team during the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, and 1957 U.S. cross-country ski champion - was hired as the coach for the biathlon center in 1961 and remained in that position until 1973, when the program was disbanded. Jim spent two years in Alaska.

"It was another gem in my lifetime," he said. "We had time to fish and hunt. I went to Europe in the winter and competed for the Council of International Military Sports events. They wanted me to stay for the '64 (Olympic Winter) Games. The military was fine, but two years was enough for me, so I got out in September (1963), went back to the University of Denver and became an assistant ski instructor coach for my good friend Willy Schaeffler."

Jim married Judy in 1963, and he was back in Denver for about two months when it came time for the U.S. Ski Team tryouts for the 1964 Winter Olympics. Judy tried out for the U.S. Ski Team in alpine racing but didn't make it.

"I tried out and made the team," Jim said, "with my pal Jimmy Page from Lake Placid and Johnny Bower from Auburn, Maine. I went to the '64 games, and I got to compete."

Jim competed in the 4x10k cross-country ski relay, 30k cross-country race and nordic combined. Americans didn't win any medals in nordic ski events during those Olympics.

"Then afterward, we took a swing through Scandinavia and did a lot of races up there," Jim said. "After that, we came back to the real world, got a job in Connecticut in manufacturing and worked there for about 22 years."

Jim's company, Stanadyne, was based in Windsor, Connecticut, a short distance from Judy's hometown. Jim spent his first two years in a training program, and when he left, he was the purchasing manager for the company's automotive products division.

During his time in Connecticut, Jim couldn't stay away from skiing or his Olympic heritage. In 1969, he became the coach for the Junior National nordic team. Then he coached the U.S. nordic combined ski team competing in Czechoslovakia in 1970 and the U.S. biathlon team during the 1972 Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. In the late 1970s, he was the president of the U.S. Ski Association's Eastern Division, and during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in his hometown, he was assistant to the chief of cross-country events.

By 1988, things were changing for Jim's company. Earlier that year, a private New York investment firm, Forstmann Little, bought Stanadyne.

"They took our company and chopped it all up, and it was basically the beginning of the end," Jim said.

The company began moving jobs to southern states, including his division, which made diesel fuel injection equipment.

"I didn't want to go south, so I moved back to Lake Placid, bought the family's liquor store on Main Street and just settled back where I belonged," Jim said.

The Sheas moved to Lake Placid in 1988, and Jim ran the Mirror Lake Liquor Store on Main Street until October 2002, when he sold it and retired. In February of the same year, his son won an Olympic gold medal in Utah during the skeleton competition. In January of that year, his father died in an automobile accident at the age of 91. When the Olympic torch relay came through Lake Placid in December 2001, Jack carried it into the speedskating oval where he had won two gold medals in 1932. Jim and Jimmy were both torchbearers prior to the lighting of the 2002 Winter Olympic cauldron.

"I felt like I was the bridge," Jim said. "I was the bridge of three generations. I've never felt underlooked. I'm so proud of what my dad and my son did. I always tell people, 'I did my best.' I didn't win an Olympic medal, but it's OK. I had a tremendous experience during my Olympics."

From his father, Jim said he learned how to be a world-champion human being.

"Honesty, integrity, always do your best, and never give up," Jim said. "My dad was such a tremendous influence on my son Jimmy when he started his skeleton career, because skeleton was not an Olympic event at the time. Jimmy's first trip to Europe - this is hard to believe - he went over there and instead of track spikes, he had a pair of golf shoes and a red-checkered jacket. It blows your mind."

Jim was named president of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in 2005 and stepped down in 2006.

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Retirement

Jim Shea keeps busy, whether it's sports or just trying to keep up with his busy wife, a driving force in the ranks of the Lake Placid Volunteer Ambulance Service.

"I'm just a local bumpkin," Jim said, "trying to live out my life as best I can."

Jim stays active in the outdoors, fishing, golfing and hunting, activities passed down from his father.

"That's one of the advantages that the young kids have to understand about growing up in this great community of Lake Placid in the Adirondack Park," Jim said. "It's the opportunities that they have. We didn't have a lot of those opportunities when I was growing up because the '32 venues were starting to crumble and 1980 was just a thought in somebody's eye, the next Olympics. Kids today are so lucky. Man, I look at the hockey players, the skaters, the skiers, the golfers. Families that live in Lake Placid should take advantage of every opportunity."

As for hunting, Jim goes out every day.

"I don't have a lot of luck, but I love to go out in the woods," Jim said. "My favorite thing is to go out and find a nice spot on top of the hill in the sun. I even take a snooze every once in a while."

 
 

 

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