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ON THE SCENE: Passion fest at bobsled/skeleton hall of fame

June 28, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Lake Placid is home to USA Bobsled & Skeleton - physically, historically, and spiritually. It is a bond that was well articulated by CEO Darrin Steele, the array of athletes honored, and the passion on display at the USABS Hall of Fame ceremony held at the Intervale base lodge Friday June 21.

Bobsledding and skeleton both began in the late 19th century in St. Moritz, Switzerland, initially as winter activities designed to lure English tourists to extend their summer visit through the winter months. Both sports began with adapting delivery sleds for recreational purposes through initially sliding on them down paths and roads, and, after considerable public outcry, eventually creating special runs. Linking two delivery sleds together and adding a steering mechanism led to the creation of bobsleds, and lying flat on the sled led to the development of skeleton.

Formal races began on natural ice at St. Moritz's Cresta Run in 1884, quickly gaining enough popularity that bobsled was included in the first Winter Olympics in 1924. While the United States did not compete that year, four years later for the second games held in St. Moritz, Americans arrived with a bang, capturing the gold and silver medals, along with a silver in skeleton by Jack Heaton, who won a bronze in bobsledding in 1932 and another silver in skeleton in 1948.

Article Photos

State Olympic Regional Development Authority CEO Mike Pratt, center, poses with Jim and Judy Shea, who accepted the award for their son, Olympic skeleton gold medalist Jimmy Shea.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Lake Placid built its run for the 1932 Winter Olympics, fostering the creation of several local clubs and launching a tradition of homegrown and Lake Placid-trained athletes that's continued ever since. Skeleton, though developed alongside bobsledding, was only included in the Olympics held in St. Moritz, 1928 and 1948. It did not become a featured event until 2002 in Salt Lake City, where Placidian Jimmy Shea took the gold. He has the distinction of being the son of an Olympian, Jim Shea, Nordic combined, and grandson of another, Jack Shea, speedskating.

The Hall of Fame was launched in 2011 following the 2010-2011 season. On June 21, along with Jack Heaton and Jimmy Shea, Stevens brothers John Hubert and Curtis of Lake Placid, and Keene Valley boys Ivan Brown and Alan "Bob" Washbond, were inducted in the Hall of Fame. Skelton athlete Austin Florian and bobsledder Lake Kwaza were awarded MVP awards for the 2018-19 season.

"The thing I love the most about Lake Placid is that it's the only place in this country where you get that sense of the history of the sport," said Steele. "This is where you feel part of a much bigger community, and you feel special. The athletes feel that they are part of this town. It's a big and welcoming club. It's only in Lake Placid where they feel that. It's a great place to be, and we are so proud to be a part of it."

Coaches Tuffy Latour and Mike Kohn gave out the MVP awards, speaking to the importance of character, athletes who go the extra mile to help their teammates, go beyond training requirements and bounce back from the setbacks that are part of any sport. Kohn praised Kwaza - a World Cup rookie who helped win four medals this season - for being an outstanding ambassador and role model for the sport combined with her remarkable self-control, reliability and commitment. Latour spoke equally highly of Florian, a skeleton athlete for only three years who won the North American Cup overall title his second year, praising his heart, dedication and spirit.

Master of ceremonies, previous inductee and member of the Hall of Fame Committee John Morgan gave a spirited introduction of the athletes inducted this year. He praised Heaton's 24-year span of winning medals in two different sports with one Olympics separated from the others by a world war.

"Think of it, mindboggling," enthused Morgan.

Locally, many stories have been handed down over the years about the Stevens's brothers humor, love of practical jokes and creativity in bending the rules. That was well captured in the photo of the brothers using a blowtorch to heat their runners, enabling them to make up a 6-second deficit to win gold in the mile-and-a-half race. Morgan passed that story on to bobsled medalist and coach Brian Shimer, delighting the crowd as he finished with, "Sorry, Brian, that had to come up."

Morgan played it reasonably straight when honoring the 1936 Olympic gold medalist bobsled duo Brown and Washbond, perhaps because so many of their relatives and direct descendants were in the room and Keene has always been as passionate about bobsledding as Saranac Lake. Indeed, Washbond's daughters - Charity and Hope - accepted his award, and Brown's nephew, John Dezalia, received it for him.

Morgan recounted how Jimmy Shea, a so-so bobsledder who took up skeleton with enthusiasm and determination, nickeled and dimed his way to competitions that built up to winning a World Cup title. A slump followed, but Shea dug in to win the Olympic trials, only to then be hit with the heartbreaking news of his grandfather's death after a car accident a couple of weeks before the Olympics. Morgan wrapped up with Jimmy's come-from-behind victory.

"I've never been at a bobsled track that sounded like a football stadium. It was loud," said Morgan of the moment Shea won the gold.

Unfortunately, flight cancelations kept Shea from accepting his award. He was the first skeleton athlete to be included in the Hall of Fame. But his mother and father - Judy and Jim - were there. Jim gave an emotional acceptance speech that was pure Shea for humor, passion and energy. NYSEF, take notice; Jimmy's daughters have taken up ski jumping.

"I'm going to do a little fill-in. Some of it's going to be me, and some of it's going to be Jimmy. You figure it out," said Jim Shea. He noted that Jimmy loved everything about the sport - from the speed and being so close to the ice to the crashes. It was Jimmy's goal not only to win races but to get skeleton accepted as an official Olympic sport.

"Jimmy was a competitor," said Caleb Smith, now a U.S. skeleton coach who was mentored and inspired by Shea. "He loved hanging it all out there. You saw that on the ice in 2002 and the beauty that happened at the bottom of the track when he pulled out the photo of his grandfather and continued the legacy of Lake Placid. He made me think I, too, could be an Olympian. His inspiration went a long way for all of us."

No less inspiring to upcoming athletes are the others inducted into the Hall of Fame, those who won the MVP awards, and people like former track manager Tony Carlino and the crew that prep the ice.

Equally uplifting is the passion of Morgan, Steele, bobsled and skeleton coaches, volunteers and family members who support the sports and the commitment of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates the track at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

"We're going to be back," said Carlino, letting the room know that the days of Germany dominating the sliding sports was about to end. The athletes, coaches and their families, standing on a hundred years of heart, grit and pride, agreed with a roar.



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