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Third Generation Olympian Jim Shea Jr. Competes in Skeleton Event - 2002-01-26

It was to have been one of the greatest stories of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Jim Shea Jr. would represent the United States in the comeback of the Skeleton event, making him the first-ever third-generation Olympian. But as Steve Schy reports, it was then that a horrible twist of fate changed everything.

Jim's grandfather Jack Shea won two speedskating gold medals at the 1932 Winter Olympics in his hometown of Lake Placid, New York.

Earlier this month at the age of 91, the oldest surviving Winter Games gold medallist was planning a return to the Olympics. But this time Jack Shea was to head to Salt Lake City as a spectator to complete a family dream.

His son Jim competed in Nordic skiing at the 1964 Innsbruck, Austria Olympics, and now Jack was going to watch his grandson, Jim Jr., become the third generation of Sheas to go for the gold.

That dream ended January 22, when Jack Shea died of injuries suffered in a car accident. A van slid out of control on a snow-covered road in Lake Placid and struck Shea's car head-on. Police arrested the van's driver on charges that included driving while intoxicated.

Had he lived, there was a good chance Jack Shea could have seen his grandson standing on the medal podium.

One of the world's top skeleton sliders since 1997, Jim Shea Jr. has won three medals at the World Championships, including gold in 1999 in Altenberg, Germany, to become the first American to win a skeleton world title. He also won the skeleton gold medal during the inaugural Winter Goodwill Games in 2000 at Lake Placid.

While the 32-year-old Shea says he was never pressured to try to become an Olympian, it is clear that his grandfather was a large influence.

"He was a real carrier of the Olympic ideal," he says. "One of the greatest lessons I think I ever learned from him is when I first made the national team and I went off to Europe, I said, 'I want to bring you home a medal.' And he laughed and he said, 'You know, that is not the most important thing you are going to bring home.' He was talking about the friendships and the ability to represent my country and what a great thing that is, and about how important it is to bring the world together in a peaceful, friendly, competition. Especially with things that are going on today. He was so excited about going and being with the family in Salt Lake. "

Considered the world's first sliding sport, skeleton started in the Swiss town of St. Moritz, where the first competition was held in 1884. The sport received its name in 1892, because people thought a new sled design looked like a skeleton.

The sport has been contested twice in the Olympics, in 1926 at St. Moritz and when the games returned to the Swiss city in 1948. So Skeleton is returning to the Winter Olympics for the first time in 54-years, with women competing for the first time as well.

The sport uses steel-framed sleds, with two runners, that are ridden down the bobsled run head-first. The sleds approach speeds of almost 130-kilometers per hour. Competitors steer by shifting their body weight and dragging their feet.

Jim Shea Jr. says he learned about a lot more than sports from his grandfather.

"I asked him last year, 'How come you did not go to the next Olympics after '32?' And he said he knew exactly what was going on over in Nazi Germany and he said 'I could not do it.' He beat everybody a month before in a big race and he could have easily won more gold medals, and he just really chose not to," explains Shea. "And I remember him telling me the story and I looked at him and I said, 'that is a good call, Chief [his nickname], that was a good call.' But he was very shunned at the time for making the decision."

Jim Sr. wanted to follow in his father Jack's footsteps from the time he was a young man. He competed in three Nordic events at the 1964 Innsbruck, Austria Games. While he did not medal, Jim Sr. was proud to carry the Olympic flag.

He says the American skeleton team should do well in Salt Lake City.

"I think we have excellent chances. In men and women's skeleton we should come out with a minimum of at least three medals," Shea says. " And that is pretty special. So we just all hope it goes the way it should go. But we all know that sports can be cruel."

But perhaps no crueler than fate has been to the Shea family's dream. Though Jack Shea did not live to see his grandson compete in the Salt Lake City Olympics, Jim Shea Jr. believes his grandfather's spirit will be with him.

"He is coming with me, you know. I am going to take his little funeral card and I am going to stick it in my helmet, and he is going to be with me the whole way. For sure, he is going to be with me," he says.

Jim Sr. says watching his son compete will be very emotional.

"It just seems to me, that after all these years, seeing that little boy Jim grow up and to see him walk into that stadium, actually repeating what his grandfather did many years ago, I have a right to cry," he says.

If Jim Shea Jr. reaches the podium, you can bet his father will not be the only spectator to shed tears of joy.