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ESPN The Magazine: Skeleton Crew
ESPN The Magazine

Hurtling down the icy track at speeds reaching 85 mph, they charge headlong like Flexible Flyer riders on a suicide mission, hitting banked turns at impossible angles, trying to coax new physics from a crazy centrifuge. Glued to their sleds by the gut-slamming force of 4 G’s, they plummet downward, the chin straps of their helmets nearly grazing the diamond-hard surface of this black hole with white walls. Neurons fire as they negotiate the curves: an instinctive twitch of the shoulder here, a tap of the knee there. The occasional high-pitched squeal of feet scraping the track gives voice to the stream of exclamation points racing through their brains. Up here, there is no time to think.

Atop the white-tipped Wasatch Mountains, at the Bear Hollow track in Park City, three American men -- Jim Shea Jr., a third-generation Olympian; Chris Soule, a part-time Hollywood actor; and Lincoln DeWitt, a computer programmer with an Ivy League pedigree -- are proving why they’re the world’s best team in an insane individual sport entirely new to the home crowd. Though skeleton seems decidedly American in flavor (Speed freaks hell-bent for carnage! On ice!), its origins are European (skeleton comes from Schlitten, the German word for sled, which is what Swiss miners raced home on instead of slogging through the snow). European is usually English for “no audience” (see MLS). But that will all change on Feb. 20, when skeleton rockets onto the Olympic stage for the first time since 1948. And as Shea, Soule and DeWitt attempt to sweep the medals -- skulls and crossbones emblazoned across their gear -- their countrymen will finally be rooting for them.

Question is, will these guys be rooting for one another?

***

Jim Shea Jr. wasn’t meant for school. Dyslexia kept him stuck in “the retard classes” (his words) at Conard High in West Hartford, Conn. He stumbled helplessly through the nightmare of reading aloud in class. Peers taunted him. Bullies toyed with him. His self-esteem was nonexistent. Depressed and out of control, he jumped off 60-foot lakeside cliffs, rode his bike as if bodily harm were his destination, and sank himself into partying -- always first to arrive and last to leave.

Eventually, Shea channeled his aggro behavior into hockey and lacrosse, and the varsity jacket he earned brought him a much-needed sense of belonging. One day, some jerk jacked him up against a locker. “I’m in the air, feet dangling,” recalls Shea, now 33. “Suddenly, I’m even higher up.” Seconds later, he realized a hockey teammate had hoisted the bully by the neck. The message was clear. Jim was never bothered again.

Sports had saved him, and he was more than happy to immerse himself. It was his birthright, after all:

His grandfather, Jack Shea, speedskated to double Olympic gold at the 1932 Games in Lake Placid. His father, Jim Sr., competed in Nordic combined and cross-country at the ’64 Games in Innsbruck. (Mom Judy just missed making the alpine squad that same year.) When the Shea clan moved back to Lake Placid in 1988, Jimmy was destined to find skeleton.

But first he needed a job. In 1992, while waiting tables at his sister Sarah’s restaurant, the Artists Cafe, Shea met a 19-year-old cook named Chris Soule. The two Connecticut boys -- Chris is from Trumbull -- bonded over thrill rides: Soule Man snowboarded, dived off bridges and ziplined down 100-foot ropes he’d rig between two trees. Recognizing a fellow adrenaline junkie, Jimmy -- older by nearly five years -- cajoled Chris into testing out the old Lake Placid track. Soule obliged, on a sled not much more sophisticated than a cafeteria tray. Sure enough, he was hooked.

In 1993, Soule began touring with the cash-poor national team. He tooled around Europe in a borrowed station wagon with teammate Greg Hagaman. Almost every night, they’d squeeze into sleeping bags in the back of the car, shivering with the heat off to save gas. By daylight, the windows were iced on the inside, their breaths literally frozen. “We’d wake up gasping for air,” says Soule, now 29. “Some mornings I’d ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’ But I wanted to be the best, and I was going to do whatever it took.”

Though Soule won U.S. Rookie of the Year honors that season, there wasn’t much at stake back then. Sliders subsisted on bread, paying their own way with little hope of prize money. Sled repair was so low-tech that Soule straightened out his ride by flattening it underneath the hydraulic platform in an elevator shaft. Women were verboten on the tracks, still three years away from being allowed to compete. Nights before races meant inebriated chaos. And skeleton remained an Olympic asterisk.

Chris and Jimmy didn’t care. They just kept getting better. Despite pronounced bow-leggedness, Shea learned how to “run like a blender,” developing one of the fastest pushes on the planet. And with every ride, Soule’s driving became more intuitive. (Sliders rely on tiny flinches as much as big pushes.) After years of living as penniless nomads, the two were now like brothers. “Chris is family,” says Judy Shea.

Of course, family doesn’t always get along. “One of my mottos is, ‘Small towns, small minds,’” Soule says. “I think that applies to Jim. It doesn’t have to, but nobody pushes him to grow.” Unlike Shea, Soule thrives on learning. He reads religiously and delves into esoteric music (John Zorn, Fantomas, Magma) and spiritual philosophies (The Celestine Prophecy, Hungar Kung Fu). He has taken classes in physics (UC Berkeley) and art (City College of San Francisco). And he’s landed roles as Demi Moore’s stunt double in G.I. Jane and as a recurring extra on Sex and the City.

Soule finds it frustrating that so many people enable Shea in his reluctance to read, deciphering his plane tickets, schedules and the like for him. That’s why Chris gave his friend copies of Animal Farm and The Pearl two years ago -- and why he’s annoyed that Jim still hasn’t read them. Not that Jim isn’t touched. “That’s Chris’ deep, sincere way of trying to help me,” Shea says. “But I haven’t read a book in years.”

Enter Lincoln DeWitt, a 34-year-old Penn grad with an economics degree, a sharply analytical mind and little patience for people who can’t keep up with him. In Lincoln, Chris found a kindred spirit. Buried in their laptops, they giggle over The Onion and the scathing sex column “Savage Love.” They needle each other’s girlfriends with inside jokes. On tour, the roommates help each other carry bags, fix equipment and map out sliding lines. Says Soule: “I’d do anything for Lincoln.”

Like Soule and Shea, DeWitt took up skeleton because he loves danger. As a toddler in Syracuse, N.Y., Lincoln dived off the top of the fridge into his father’s arms. Larry DeWitt lined the bedroom walls with every pillow in the house -- including couch cushions -- and tossed his son from the hallway onto the bed 20 feet away. Years later, college behind him, Lincoln moved to Park City to ski the steepest slopes he could find.

This addiction to adrenaline is all that DeWitt and Shea share. Well-educated, meticulous and self-assured, DeWitt is everything Shea is not. And Shea quickly felt DeWitt’s contempt. “Lincoln is loud,” Jim says. “He makes sarcastic comments because he has to call attention to himself all the time. Some people are insecure because they haven’t established themselves yet.” DeWitt refuses to respond, except to say, “Some people want to keep you down however they can, so it’s amazing to know Chris always has my back.”

When skeleton was added to the 2002 Games after Shea became ’99 world champ, the stakes skyrocketed -- along with the envy, jealousy and insecurity. Feeling shut out by his teammates, Shea was also burdened by his unspoken duty to carry on the family legacy: “I kept bracing for a huge disappointment.”

Meanwhile, DeWitt glommed onto cerebral U.S. head coach Ryan Davenport, a two-time World Cup champ imported from Calgary in ’99, two years after DeWitt took up the sport. “My strategy is the gospel according to Ryan,” says Lincoln, who pored over charts, tweaked sleds and transformed himself from a middle-distance runner (he was a miler at Penn) to an explosive sprinter. The devotion paid off: DeWitt won the overall World Cup title in 2001, stealing the final race at Bear Hollow, a short, fast track that favors dominant pushers like DeWitt and finesse sliders like Soule -- but penalizes aggressive drivers like Shea.

DeWitt’s success last season rankled Shea, who fell from first to third in the world after slipping during two races. Jim’s life now revolved around skeleton and his family legacy, and he hated that Mr. Ivy League had leapfrogged ahead. The camaraderie of his Conard days was gone. “Now guys high-five each other if their own teammate doesn’t make the podium,” Shea says. “It’s sad, because our team used to be close. What I wouldn’t give to join my pals on the freestyle aerials team. They respect each other and have fun together.”

To everyone else, all the sniping is old sauce. “I couldn’t care less if Jim and Lincoln don’t get along,” Soule says. “It’s their loss.” But it’s also a coaching headache, as Davenport explains: “The conflict doesn’t interfere on race day, but it does interfere with getting them from the airport to the hotel.” And Shea often fuels the fire. At a security meeting in November, Soule addressed a roomful of U.S. sliders. “Before you go putting a big flag on everything,” he cautioned, “remember you’re affecting your teammates’ safety.” Shea sat in silence, well aware that Soule’s comment was directed at him. “That attitude is exactly why I got a big flag on my sled,” Jim said later. “It’s our uniform. You don’t like it, stay home.”

***

On the final day of the Olympic trials at Bear Hollow on Jan. 6, DeWitt seems spooked. Unlike Soule and Shea, who prequalified with their respective No. 2 and No. 3 world rankings, DeWitt struggled mightily this season, falling to No. 8 (Switzerland’s Gregor Stähli is No. 1). Today, it’s win or go home -- and the stress is getting to him. Lincoln’s normally tidy car teems with empty water bottles and old newspapers. Jim is gleeful. “Everyone is freaking out,” he reports. “You should see the way Lincoln’s been treating people up at the track.” Even Judy Shea grins as she points out DeWitt trudging to the start, shoulders slumped.

In third place, a discouraging .12 second behind with one run left, DeWitt soaks in the cheers, led by his fiancée, Linda Sanders. Soule leans over a sideline rail and yells, “C’mon, Lincoln!” Their eyes meet, and DeWitt winks, though his face is deadly serious. Then he bursts onto the track, speeding to a 49.06. Minutes later, the day’s leader, Air Force major Brady Canfield, loses control of his sled in the last three turns. DeWitt wins; his entire body seems to exhale. Afterward, Soule hunts down his friend. “Holy f--,” DeWitt says over and over, squeezing Soule tightly.

Hours later, at the postrace party at Zoom’s, a swank Main Street joint, Shea approaches DeWitt. Though Shea was pulling hard for Canfield, he grins as he grabs hold of his rival’s hands. “This is where your Olympic ring’s gonna go, man,” he says, shaking DeWitt’s fingers for emphasis. DeWitt blinks at him, eyebrows arched, and forces a half-smile. It is an awkward moment, rife with mixed emotions.

For Shea, though, the coming days will stir up hard feelings of another sort. On Jan. 22, Jack Shea died at the age of 91, one day after his car was hit by a drunk driver near his Lake Placid home. Never has Jim’s role within the family been clearer: He will dedicate every moment of these Games to his grandfather, who was only days away from his dream of watching Jim march into Olympic Stadium beneath the American flag. Never has the spotlight burned brighter: Yes, that was Shea sitting two rows from Laura Bush during the State of the Union address, representing his fellow Olympians. But while Shea has many friends in his camp (Canfield, who will forerun on race day to test the track, has promised Shea an exclusive scouting report), never has he needed his teammates more.

At the first practice after trials, DeWitt lends Shea a spare spike for his track shoes, making sure to mention he always carries extras. Shea says thanks and asks if DeWitt is planning to repaint his helmet for the Games. As the two chat about new colors and intricate designs, both men seem to be dancing around some kind of understanding.

Whether Shea, Soule and DeWitt pull off the improbable sweep on Feb. 20 depends on the adrenaline-soaked twists and turns of a downhill thrill ride. But the journey toward solidarity still has some uphill stretches ahead.

This article appears in the February 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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