OLYMPIC LEGACY: Olympic family
Shea family’s Olympic journey began in 1932 at Lake Placid Games
(Editor’s note: This story is part of an “Olympic Legacy” series to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. What happened that year led to this village hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980 and the continuing legacy of training Olympic athletes, inspiring future Olympians and hosting international winter sports events.)
LAKE PLACID — Jim Shea won’t be heading West this weekend for the 1972 U.S. Olympic biathlon team’s reunion at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah.
“My breathing is not that good, and the air is so thin out there,” he said Tuesday, Feb. 22. “So I’ll be doing that with, you know, with the thing they do with meetings now (virtual). I’ll be there on the wire.”
At 83 years old, Shea is slowing down, but his Olympic spirit is still up. He was the head coach of the 1972 team, which is being inducted into the U.S. Biathlon Hall of Fame on Sunday, Feb. 27. Members of the team are being honored for their sixth-place finish in the Olympic relay race at Sapporo, Japan, and additional contributions to the sport over the years.
This honor caps off a life-long Olympic journey for Shea. Call it what you will. Destiny, perhaps. It began even before he was born. After all, his father was Jack Shea, the hometown hero who won two speedskating gold medals during the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932.
Life would never be the same for the Shea family after those Games. The Sheas eventually produced two more Olympic athletes.
Asked how his life would be different if Lake Placid never hosted the 1932 Winter Olympics, Jim said, “Oh boy. Because of the Olympics and my dad played such a major role, I don’t know what the hell to say. My life would have been more of a plain Jane ordinary citizen, probably.”
Jim wouldn’t have been nearly involved in sports for his entire life — as an athlete, coach, booster and volunteer.
“Sure, I would have been a little speedskater like I was, and probably a ski jumper,” he said. “And if I had any brains, I would have gone to college on a ski scholarship the way I did. And after that, I think … the Olympics just would have been an every four-year event like the normal John.”
But it wasn’t. For a Placidian — especially the son of Jack Shea — the Olympic Games worked their way into everyday life. Reminders of the 1932 Games were all around: the Arena on Main Street, the Olympic stadium and speedskating oval in front of the high school, the ski jumps at Intervales, and the bobsled run at Mount Van Hoevenberg.
As for Lake Placid’s future, if it hadn’t hosted the 1932 Olympics, Jim said it wouldn’t be the “Winter Sports Capital of the World,” as it’s known today.
“We would be probably a little town, if we were lucky, a little town meandering along like the village of Saranac Lake,” he said. “We wouldn’t have any of these sports venues. We wouldn’t have the tourists. It would just be a little small town New York.”
Go west, young man
Jim Shea was born on June 22, 1938, at the Lake Placid General Hospital, the son of Jack and Elizabeth (Stearns) Shea.
He began ski jumping at age 10 and was the president of the local ski team by the time he was a high school senior. An avid cross-country skier, Jim was training one day on the old Northwood School course, which ran parallel to the Mount Whitney Road. Craig Lussi — a Lake Placid native on the University of Denver ski team — was driving by in a yellow Oldsmobile and stopped him.
“He said, ‘Hey, Jim, come over here and talk to me,'” Jim told the News in 2014. “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.”
That was 1957, the year Jim graduated from the Lake Placid High School. In August, he received a telephone call from Willy Schaeffler, the University of Denver ski team coach, who invited him to attend the university. So he packed up and headed to Colorado. By September, he was a DU student and, as a member of the ski team, a Denver Pioneer.
“Our team was made up of skiers from all over the world,” Jim said. “It was the start of a long, long journey in skiing.”
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. The championship meet, held at Middlebury College’s Snow Bowl, 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,” Jim said in 2014 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. She graduated from DU in 1962.
The Olympic road home
After graduation, Jim went to work for National Steel in Portage, Indiana, but then he was drafted into the U.S. Army. With a skiing background, he was assigned to the U.S. biathlon training center in Anchorage, Alaska, after basic training.
“And all we did there was ski and shoot,” he said.
Jim served at Fort Richardson, home of the U.S. Modern Winter Biathlon Training Center.
“I went to Europe in the winter and competed for the Council of International Military Sports events,” he said. “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. He made the team and competed in the 4x10k cross-country ski relay, 30k cross-country race and Nordic combined.
After some more racing in Europe, Jim and Judy settled down. His company, Stanadyne, was based in Windsor, Connecticut, a short distance from Judy’s hometown.
But 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 in Czechoslovakia in 1970 and the U.S. biathlon team during the 1972 Winter Olympics and the 1973 World Biathlon Championships in Lake Placid. 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.
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 2002, his son Jimmy won an Olympic gold medal in skeleton during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Four weeks earlier, his father died in a car crash at the age of 91. To honor Jack, 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 in 2014. “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,” he said.
Retirement has treated Jim well. He’s stayed as active as he could in the outdoors, fishing, golfing and hunting, activities passed down from his father.
“I’m just a local bumpkin,” he said in 2014, “trying to live out my life as best I can.”
Jim was named president of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in 2005 and stepped down in 2006. He’s spent many hours with Judy volunteering at local sporting events. And for years, he’d stop by the Olympic Speedskating Oval to meet skaters competing in the annual Jack Shea Sprints, hosted by the Lake Placid Speed Skating Club.
“I just liked to tell them a little bit about what a great opportunity they have to be here,” he said. “And how much pride it gives me to represent my dad and all the other legends that have done so well and represented our country on that track.”
Legend of Jack Shea
They called him Mr. Olympic, Mr. Lake Placid, the Ice King, a Legend of the Oval.
John “Jack” Shea was born on Sept. 7, 1910, in Lake Placid, the son of James and Grace (Obrey) Shea.
He began skating at age 3, and he was a speedskating champion by age 10. His idol was Charles Jewtraw, a Placidian who won a gold medal in speedskating during the first Olympic Winter Games at Chamonix, France, in 1924. A year earlier, at age 12, Jack was a member of Lake Placid’s “Famous Five” international speedskating champions with Jewtraw, James Sheffield (age 16), Carl Parody (14) and his 10-year-old brother Eugene. He broke many speedskating records in the late 1920s and was the North American speedskating champion in 1929 and 1930 — while a student at Lake Placid High School.
Jack’s accomplishments on the rink initiated a resurgence of interest in speedskating, which had its glory days in the 1910s and 1920s in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, which split hosting championship races.
“Jack’s prowess on the ice is something every one can see and appreciate,” stated the Lake Placid News editorial on Feb. 21, 1930. “But this 19-year-old youngster has done another thing. Speed skating in this section of the Adirondacks, following the time when Charlie Jewtraw hung up his skates for good, was practically at a standstill so far as the public’s interest was concerned.”
Yet in February 1929, when Jack Shea took the Diamond Trophy and North American crowns in his first year of senior competition, interest in speedskating began to revive “in a big way.”
“To see the crowds at Pontiac rink and Mirror rink during the four-day meet concluded last Friday was to hark back to the days of Ed Lamy and Charlie Jewtraw,” the editorial continued.
“We doff our editorial hat to this boy and hope that the greatest things in the skating world continue to come his way. And when he hangs up his skates … our wish is that the honors that go to those who achieve the larger things in life’s greater arena may come to him in constantly increasing measure.”
Jack graduated from Lake Placid High School in 1930 with his brother Eugene, and they both enrolled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
The following winter, Jack lost his North American title, but then he was named to the U.S. speedskating team for the 1932 Winter Olympics.
As a sophomore at Dartmouth College, Jack Shea almost didn’t compete in the 1932 Winter Olympics, according to his son Jim.
“Dartmouth College didn’t want to give Dad the time off to compete for his country in the Olympics. Can you imagine that?” he said. “It took a lot of political arm twisting for that to happen. And, of course, my dad, he was a student and to him it was more important that he get his degree, which is hard for me to believe. That wouldn’t have been my take on it. But he wanted to do the right thing.”
Yet it worked out in the end. Jack went home for the Olympics. On Feb. 4, he raised his right hand and took the Olympic oath during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium. After the ceremony, he won a gold medal in the 500-meter speedskating race. The next day, he won gold in the 1,500-meter race.
Jim said his father told stories about the 1932 Olympics over the years.
“Dad told me about meeting with Sonja Henie, what a pretty little lady she was,” he said. “He’d tell me about training, how he used to go over on … Echo Pond over behind Northwood School, when there wasn’t really enough ice on Mirror Lake to skate. … You remember my dad, he had a story for everything.”
On Feb. 13, the day of the closing ceremony, Jack was crowned king of the Olympic Carnival at the arena. Lucille Hickey, of Port Henry, was the queen, and two-man bobsled champ J. Hubert Stevens officiated the coronation. The next night, he was welcomed back to Dartmouth “with brass bands and parades marking his Olympic victories,” the Lake Placid News reported on Feb. 19, 1932. He continued to compete on the Dartmouth speedskating team.
Jack refused to defend his Olympic titles four years later at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, boycotting the 1936 Games because of the Nazi government’s anti-Jewish policies. He honored the request of a local rabbi who asked him not to compete in Adolf Hitler’s Olympics.
For the next 70 years, Jack Shea led a life filled with community service, pride in his hometown, and a never-ending belief in the Olympic ideal.
He earned a bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth (1934) and attended Albany Law School. He was a manager of Shea’s Market and the Mirror Lake Liquor Store. He was a North Elba town justice (1958-1974), golf secretary for the Lake Placid Club (1960-1972), North Elba town supervisor (1974-1983) and chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors (1980-1983). And he was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 1983 — 29 years before his son Jim’s induction.
A member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum’s Hall of Fame, Jack was instrumental in bringing the Winter Olympics back to Lake Placid in 1980. He was a member of the bid team and the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee’s executive committee.
Almost four weeks before his death, on Dec. 29, 2001, Jack Shea was the final person to carry Salt Lake City’s Olympic flame in Lake Placid’s leg of the torch run. All day long — from the bobsled run at Mount Van Hoevenberg to the Olympic Jumping Complex, North Elba Show Grounds, Olympic Training Center and the Olympic Speedskating Oval — volunteers ran one-fifth of a mile and handed the torch to the next person.
Jim Shea was at the speedskating oval to see his dad carry the torch.
“I shut my liquor store down and came down,” he said. “And I was just standing in the crowd there and watched him come in. Well, he was as proud as a peacock, just kind of jogging in. And he went up on the stage.”
Dressed in the white-and-blue torch runner’s uniform, Jack lit a small cauldron with the flame. Then he turned to the crowd and said, “I’ve always loved the Olympic movement. It stands for peace. Friendly athletic competition to bring better relations between the family of nations. I am a peacemaker, as an Olympian.”
Eventually, Jim was hauled up on stage with his dad, and he’ll never forget it.
“It was a great tribute to my dad,” Jim said. “My dad loved that kind of thing. He really did because he was such a fine representative of the Olympic movement. He was what everyone should strive to be that’s in the Olympic movement.”