American Shea takes gold in reanimated `skeleton'

Boisterous crowd delights in victory of sentimental favorite

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 21, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PARK CITY, Utah - Before a rocking crowd of 15,000 at Utah Olympic Park, Jim Shea Jr. won the gold medal yesterday in skeleton, an event that had been on the Olympic shelves for 54 years.

Clearly the sentimental favorite among fans and athletes, Shea had dedicated the race to his grandfather.

Jack Shea, a double-gold-medal speed skater at the 1932 Winter Games, died hours after his car was struck by a suspected drunken driver Jan. 21.

Jim Shea's storybook finish threatened to overshadow the women's race. But the crowd roared its approval when Americans Tristan Gale and Lea Ann Parsley finished one-two, with the top slider in the world, Alex Coomber of Great Britain, in third place.

The venue in Bear Hollow looked like a snow globe scene, with white flakes swirling everywhere.

The spectators did their best imitation of Green Bay Packers fans, as shirtless men wore "U-S-A" painted on their chests in red, white and blue stars.

The grandstand rattled as Shea crossed the finish line and rose to his knees in triumph. Standing in the track, he fumbled with his helmet and pulled out his grandfather's funeral card, which he held overhead.

"My grandpa was with me the whole way," said Shea, his body shaking. "The Olympics mean more to me than the gold medal, and now that I have one I can say that."

Shea's father, 1964 Olympic nordic skier Jim Shea Sr., trembled, his eyes filling with tears.

"This is a special day. It's just phenomenal. My father? He would have cried," the senior Shea said.

The Sheas are the only three-generation American Olympic family.

Silver medalist Martin Rettl of Austria and bronze medalist Gregor Staehli of Switzerland quickly surrounded Shea and embraced him.

"You can't describe the feeling of being together with Jim Shea on the podium," Rettl said.

Shea carried a lead of 0.13 of a second into the second run, and he lost most of it on the top half of the course.

"I made two small mistakes going down," he said. "I just relaxed and let it go a little bit and hit my points on the curves."

Shea's two-run time was 1 minute, 41.96 seconds, 0.05 ahead of Rettl and 0.19 ahead of Staehli, the overall World Cup champion.

"I felt him here today and at the opening ceremony," Shea said of his grandfather. "I think he had some unfinished business before he went to heaven. Now, I think he can go."

Slow climb to the top

The gold medal was Shea's reward for years of apprenticeship abroad, bumming rides to events, sleeping in the sheds that house the sleds and even calling his father to have him sell his Jeep so he could keep racing.

The 33-year-old volunteer firefighter from Lake Placid, N.Y., started in the bobsled program, became bored and switched to skeleton in 1995.

Four years later, he won the world championship in Winterberg, Germany, and the lobbying began to put skeleton back on the Olympic program.

"I went to every doghouse, outhouse, henhouse. I even went to the White House twice," Shea cracked.

He credited Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney and Prince Albert of Monaco as two of the men who dusted off skeleton and presented it as a fast sport to attract a younger crowd.

"They say bobsled is the champagne of thrills? Well, skeleton is the moonshine of thrills," Shea said.

American Chris Soule, ranked second in the world, finished seventh. Teammate Lincoln DeWitt finished fifth.

"Up to now, my calendar only went to Feb. 20, so I'm going to have to stop at Staples and find a calendar that goes past Feb. 20," said DeWitt, 33, dodging a question about retiring.

By winning two gold medals and a silver, the U.S. team doubled its take in skeleton medals.

At the 1928 Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Jennison Heaton won the first gold medal in the sport and his younger brother, John, took the silver.

Twenty years later, when the Olympics returned to St. Moritz, John Heaton won his second silver medal.

But this was the first time women had been allowed to compete, and they didn't disappoint the crowd with their performance or their emotions.

After the first run, it was Gale, Parsley and Coomber, with just 0.01 separating the top two and 0.21 separating Parsley and Coomber.

During the second run, the snow came down harder and slowed track conditions even more.

Coomber went first and could not pick up any time on the leader.

Neither could Parsley, Ohio's 1999 Firefighter of the Year, who wore a crash helmet painted with flames leaping from the visor.

Gale could coax only 76.8 mph out of her sled - the fourth-best time - but her first run carried the day.

Gale, 21, who had never won a World Cup medal and was ranked 10th on the circuit, was hoisted off her sled by Parsley and danced around the finish line.

Parsley, 33, said she wasn't disappointed with the ending.

"I don't care what color it is," she said. "I was happy for Tristan."

Gale said that while standing at the starting gate, she saw Parsley's time and, "I started to cry. Then I had to say, `OK, knock it off.'"

Future for the sport

Yesterday's performances and crowd reaction can only help skeleton, the athletes say.

Spectators, who walked a mile uphill in the snow, were lined up at the gates in the pre-dawn darkness three hours before the race started.

"The crowd, it took me aback," said Coomber, a Royal Air Force intelligence officer.

"I said, `Blimey, if it's like this at half past seven, what's it going to be like at the start of the race?'"

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