Skeleton returned to the Olympic programme in 2002, more than 50 years after its last appearance, when Nino Bibbia had taken a gold medal at St Moritz. With all of the world’s best male and female exponents in action, it proved an instant hit with the fans. In the men’s competition the favourites were Martin Rettl, an air traffic controller from Austria, Switzerland's Gregor Stähli and the American Jim Shea Jr.
Shea Jr knew exactly what it meant to be an Olympian, as both his grandfather and father had both competed in the Olympic Winter Games. – his grandfather, Jack, was an acclaimed speed skater who had won two gold medals at the 1932 edition of the Games, while his father, Jim Sr, had been a cross country skier who took part in three events in Innsbruck in 1964.
Despite his pedigree, Jim Shea Jr had followed an arduous path towards his own Olympic debut. After deciding to take up skeleton, he had travelled around Europe on the tightest of budgets, working at tracks to earn a bit of money and also the chance to complete a few runs. In 1998, he had become the first American to win a World Cup race and then, the following season, the first to be crowned skeleton world champion.
Shea Jr’s preparations for Salt Lake City were good, but were sent into tumult just a couple of weeks before the Games began when his beloved grandfather, Jack, now 91 years old, was killed in a car crash. To mark his passing, he placed a photo of Jack inside his helmet for the duration of the competition.
After the first two runs, Shea Jr was in the lead, a handy 0.13 seconds clear of Rettl, with Stähli a fraction behind. Both of his closest challengers then recorded the same, fast time on their third run, throwing the gauntlet down to Shea Jr.
He made a poor start, and all his advantage from the first two runs had soon ebbed away. By the halfway mark, he was trailing Rettl by 0.01 seconds. And yet, somehow, the American found an extra bit of speed over those closing bends.
He crossed the line to clock an overall time of 1 minute 41.96 seconds, sealing victory by just 0.05 seconds. In acknowledging his victory, he paid tribute to his late grandfather, whom he thanks for inspiring him to the gold. “Now he can go up to heaven,” he said poignantly.