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Wednesday, February 20, 2002
Updated: February 21, 10:43 PM ET
Shea shines in the spotlight

By Anne Marie Cruz
ESPN The Magazine

PARK CITY, Utah -- On the first morning of practice after the U.S. skeleton team trials in early January, Jimmy Shea Jr. made a beeline for Tristan Gale. The new Olympian was sitting on one of the benches in the Bear Hollow warming house, adjusting her track shoes. Shea sat down next to Gale, and Gale gazed up at him, cocking her head expectantly.

Jim Shea
Jim Shea celebrates with his father, Jim Shea Sr., after paying tribute to the first Olympian in the family, Jack Shea who died last month.

Shea took her hands and looked her squarely in the eyes. Gently removing her gloves one at a time, he set them down on the bench and held her fingers in his palms.

"You're going to have to find out what size your finger is," said Shea, with a lopsided grin.

There was the briefest of pauses.

"Why?" asked Gale, intrigued, but slightly baffled. Was he proposing to her?

"Because this is where your Olympic ring's going to go," Shea replied, wiggling her ring finger for punctuation. Gale's hands flew up to her mouth, and her eyes widened as this detail sunk in.

"Welcome to the team," Shea said.

Shea's and Gale's dual gold-medal winning day was filled with equally small, touching gestures like that one. From Shea and other athletes wearing Jack Shea's funeral card in their helmets ... to Martin Rettl and Gregor Staehli, the silver and bronze medalists, joyfully tackling Shea at the finish ... to Shea hopping every fence and wall in his way from the sheer joy of honoring his grandfather with sweet victory ... to Gale and teammate Lea Ann Parsley giddily holding up the American flag, having finished first and second ... to the endless group hugs and high-fives amongst all the winners instigated by Shea ... to his utter refusal to hog the mike, insisting that every medalist get equal time during the news conference.

The spotlight had so swiftly and so blindingly trained its searing rays on Shea. The frenzy over the possibility of his becoming a third-generation Olympian began immediately after skeleton was added to the Salt Lake City roster. So much attention and hand-wringing went into whether or not he'd make the team. After he did, by virtue of his No. 3 world ranking this season, he was overwhelmed with the joy of sharing his victory with his grandfather.

Then, only a month later, on Jan. 22, Jack Shea died, after his car was hit by a drunk driver. The dream of having his grandfather and father with him at the Opening Ceremonies gone.

Yet Jimmy managed to pull off what few gave him good odds of doing. Yes, Shea's training this week went well, with two second- and third-places each. But Shea had never won on this course, and the feeling was that Chris Soule, who had won two training runs and a fistful of World Cup medals this season, would lead the medal haul for the Americans.

But while Soule couldn't find his rhythm, Shea never wavered. "I felt like ripping someone's head off up at the start today," Shea said, furrowing his brow at the memory. "I wanted to be explosive up there."

How much goes into conquering a day like this? Washing dishes in Lake Placid to scrape together funds to race. Tooling around Europe armed with only a sled, a couple foreign phrases and pocket change. Surviving school despite being mercilessly picked on for being dyslexic. Developing one of the world's fastest sprints despite pronounced bowleggedness. Channeling his grief over his family's tragic loss into a moving tribute for his grandfather, a double gold-winning speedskater at the '32 Lake Placid Games.

On a day like this, it was no coincidence that the two close friends, Tristan and Jimmy, both wore Bib No. 4. And on a day like this, Jim Shea shrugged off all the pressure, infused with the deep, spiritual presence of his grandfather, and came away victorious.

"My grandfather had some unfinished business here," Shea said, clutching his grandfather's photo. "He can go up to heaven now."

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.