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A SPEEDY SLED BUT A SAD HEART.

Byline: STEVE DILBECK

SALT LAKE CITY - Jim Shea Jr.'s grandfather had told him about it. His grandfather had told him many things he would remember, but this one stood out.

Hometown speedskater Jack Shea had been chosen by the U.S. to give the Olympic oath at the opening ceremony of 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

``He said how incredibly special it was,'' Jim Jr. said. ``That he could feel the heartbeat of America. He said it was almost a religious experience.''

Seventy years later, Shea will find out for himself. Find out if his hair stands on end as his grandfather's did. Know the thrill of entering the Olympic stadium like his father, a U.S. Nordic combined and cross country skier in the 1964 opening ceremony.

On Thursday, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced that Shea, a medal contender in skeleton, had been selected by a vote of his teammates to give the Olympic oath at tonight's opening ceremony.

The Sheas are the first family to produce three generations of Winter Olympians in three different sports. America's first family of the Winter Games.

It is an exhilarating time for Shea, yet it envelops a heavy heart. He grew up hearing of the Olympic ideal from his grandfather, who won two gold medals, and wanted to walk into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium and wave to his father and grandfather in the stands.

But 17 days ago, he lost his grandfather in a car accident near Lake Placid. Jack Shea was 91 and already had tickets to watch his grandson continue this unique family tradition.

Now, Shea is thrilled to be honored to follow in his grandfather's footsteps but battles mixed feelings.

``It's very tough,'' Jim Jr. said. ``I get asked a lot of tough questions. They say, if the most important thing was to go to the opening ceremony and see your grandfather and father, who are you going to look for now? I sort of tear up.''

There were moments Thursday when his grandfather was mentioned that Jim Jr. appeared to battle his emotions, but he said even when informed the night before he was selected to give the oath, he did not break down.

``I have a lot of emotions built up from a lot of things that have happened to me lately,'' he said. ``I'm saving them for after the Games.''

The Games were almost unexpected, anyway. Skeleton had been an Olympic event at the 1928 Games and again in '48 but not since. In the U.S., few practiced this daredevil cousin to the luge, in which the athletes slide headfirst down a 1-mile run at speeds of 80 mph, their chins only a couple inches above the ice.

``There are very few fatalities,'' Jim Jr. said.

As a youth, he would go hunting with his father and grandfather at a cabin first built by his great grandfather and hear the results of bobsled and luge runs at nearby Lake Placid announced over the loudspeaker system. It seemed a calling.

He first tried bobsled, but his relative small size and the expense of the sport - a top bobsled can cost more than $40,000, compared to $3,000 for a skeleton sled - led him to try skeleton.

It was love at first fright.

Jim Jr., 33, made his first U.S. skeleton team in '95. Members would pay their own way to Europe for the three-week World Cup circuit, where they invariably would be overmatched by Europeans.

After two years of this, as the team prepared to return to the U.S. before Christmas, he turned to then U.S. coach Peter Vaiciulis and made an announcement.

``I'll never forget it,'' Jim Jr. said. ``I told him, 'I'm staying.' And he said, 'Hurry up, we've got to pack. We'll miss the flight.' And I said, 'No, I'm really staying.'

``He said, 'OK, Jimmy, let's review here. Your sled is broken, you don't have any money, you don't know where you are, you don't have any transportation, you don't speak the language.' I said, 'I'm staying.' And I did and ended up hitchhiking all over Europe.''

Shea packed his sled and clothes in a hockey bag and started traveling, going from track to track.

``I didn't have any money,'' he said. ``I hitchhiked around and got to these tracks and slept in bobsleds. When I was in Austria, I didn't sleep in one place that didn't have animals underneath me.''

He'd help on the tracks to get time for his runs. The Europeans noticed his drive and started taking him in.

``The friendships really became important,'' he said. ``The British team used to call me their pet Yank because I would go everywhere. I remember one day I was in Innsbruck and the Brits said, 'Jimmy, jump in the car. Grab your stuff.'

``So I grabbed my bag, get in the car, and about two minutes later we're going down the road and I say, 'Where we going?' They said, 'Norway.' And we went to Norway.''

Jim Jr.'s determination and belief in himself would soon pay dividends.

``I was obsessed with doing well,'' he said. ``I knew if I got half the time on the track the Europeans did, I could do well. I knew it.''

His conversations with his grandfather were infrequent those two months.

``He just said, 'Jimmy, you can do it. I'm real proud of you. Just do whatever you have to do.' I really didn't talk to him too much when I was over there. I couldn't afford a phone call.''

Jim Jr. became the first American to win a World Cup race in 1998, and in 1999, he was the first U.S. world champion. He currently is ranked third in the world.

An unabashed patriot, Jim Jr. said he was honored to be elected by his teammates to give the oath, thrilled to carry on a special family tradition.

``It's not about the medals,'' he said. ``It's about competing, it's about taking part. I can't stress this enough. My grandfather really taught me this at a young age. That the Olympics are about bringing the world together and taking part. When a couple of skiers said, 'We don't care about the medals, it's about the endorsements,' it broke his heart. It means so much to him.''

Jim Jr. said when he slides down the Olympic Park track, he will tuck a funeral card into his helmet from his grandfather's funeral.

``He'll be sliding with me,'' he said.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 8, 2002
Words:1091
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