Gold medals ran in this Olympian’s family. So did a darker legacy.
The Evel Knievel of sledding. That was my image. The cold midwinter day I hurtled down that iced mountain track in Altenberg, Germany, people said I was going so fast, I was no more than a blur. Eighty-five miles an hour, headfirst on a sled the size of a laptop computer, no brakes, no steering. Nada. I had been sliding four years before that race – the 1999 World Championship in skeleton, a daredevil Olympic sport. I roared through the final turn, winning by half a second – the first American ever to take the world title. It was without a doubt the biggest moment of my life so far. And there I stood in the snow, feeling nothing. Empty. I forced a smile. I was an expert at that – and at pushing the envelope as far as it would go. Pulling crazy stunts – moonlight waterskiing, snowmobile jumping at high speeds, diving from a 90-foot cliff into Lake Placid in pitch-black darkness – anything so that I could feel alive. If only for a split second.
That was as long as the feeling ever lasted. Even that day at the world championships. Zooming down the skeleton track gave me a huge rush. In less than 60 seconds I crossed the finish line and the darkness descended again, like a fog bank that settled and wouldn’t go away. I’d had those dark-cloud feelings since I was seven. I just never told anyone. The men in my family were strong, silent types who toughed things out. Even my uncle Pat, who took his own life when I was very little. I could tell everyone was sad, but no one talked about it. Uncle Pat. Maybe he hadn’t been as strong as we thought.
I thought gloom was normal. Something that ran in the family, like our talent for winter sports. My dad, Jim, Sr., competed in the 1964 Olympics in cross-country skiing and Nordic combined, and coached the 1972 U.S. Olympic biathlon team. My mom, Judy, was an alternate on the 1964 ski team. My grandfather, Jack Shea, won two gold medals in speed skating in the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Gramp was my hero. I’d make him tell me stories about the Games when we visited him. “You’ve got the genes for success, Jimmy,” he’d say.
Not at school I didn’t. I couldn’t even learn to read. Dyslexia. But no one diagnosed it at the time. The school just put me, at age seven, into special ed. My self-esteem plummeted. That’s when I first felt the fog settle over me. It followed me through high school. Even after I was “mainstreamed” back into regular classes. Once in a while I’d confide my troubles to Gramp.
“Don’t get down on yourself,” he said. “God gives each of us our own special gift. You’re a wonderful athlete. You’re going to go far. Just trust God, Jimmy.”
Well, Gramp was right about sports. I was a ferocious competitor. In West Hartford, Connecticut, hockey was bigger than football. I made the Junior Olympic team. My parents moved us to Lake Placid, another big hockey town. They thought being closer to Gramp – and his strong faith – would help me. By then, though, I was numb to everything. Even hockey lost its thrill. I quit playing.
I graduated high school, but what kind of a future was there for a guy who could barely read? So much for God giving me a gift that would take me far.
I started hanging out with other thrill-seekers. We did some pretty crazy things. I knew I was pushing the limits. I just wanted to feel something – pain, joy, fear, whatever. Anything that would make me think, I’m alive.
One day, in my early twenties, I went to the bobsled track with my mom. I couldn’t believe it – there was a lunatic careening down the run on what looked like a lunch tray. “What is that?” I asked.
Mom said, “It’s called skeleton. And don’t you ever try it.”
Naturally, I made my first run the next day. The rush I got from racing down the mountain facefirst was unlike anything I’d known. For those few minutes on the sled, the fog lifted.
I threw myself into the sport, and in 1995, at age 27, made the U.S. National Team. At the time, that didn’t mean a whole lot. The best sledders in the world – the Europeans – competed at an entirely different level. I felt like an amateur playing among pros. But I was learning. And, there on the racetrack, I felt alive.
I made a decision: I would go for it all, go for the Olympics, just like my mom, dad and Gramp. The rest of the American team returned home after the 1997 European season. I stayed in Germany. I wanted to train with the best.
I stuffed my clothes into an old hockey bag and hitchhiked from one track to another. Some nights I slept in bobsled sheds. I ate when I could. I didn’t really care much about food. The Europeans thought I was crazy. It didn’t matter to me. I had a goal.
The day of the 1999 World Championship race, I was totally focused. I remembered Gramp telling me he’d say a prayer before my heat. Lord, I asked, show me the fastest way down.
I found it. I won. I did what no American had ever done before. I was all but assured of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But standing there on the winner’s podium, waiting for the medal to be draped around my neck, all I felt was, Yeah, well, whatever.
I returned to the States, moved to Salt Lake City. That’s where the next Olympics would be held. Phil Thompson, an old family friend, let me stay in his cabin. He took me under his wing, bought me dinner when I couldn’t afford it, took me to church. Even though Phil was as close a friend as I ever had, I didn’t let him know about my problems. He must have sensed something was wrong, because he confronted me one night.
“I’m worried about you,” Phil said. “I think you should see a sports psychologist.”
With most people, I would have blown off the suggestion. But Phil was like family, so I made an appointment with Dr. Michael Lardon. He asked me a string of questions: Was I often overcome by sadness? By a feeling of emptiness? Was I unable to take joy from what should have been happy moments? Did I suffer from irregular appetite, restless sleep, decreased energy?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. It freaked me out how he knew what I’d been feeling.
“Jimmy,” Dr. Lardon said. “I believe you’re suffering from clinical depression.”
“Olympic athletes can’t show any sign of weakness,” I said, defensively.
“Depression isn’t a weakness,” Dr. Lardon said. “It’s a disease.” He wanted to put me on medication.
“Fine, I’ll take the pills,” I said. “When they don’t work, it’ll prove you’re wrong.” I swallowed a pill every night. Astonishingly, the fog began to lift. One morning I walked to the track before practice. Just hearing the ice crunch under my spikes sent a tingle of anticipation through me. I couldn’t remember feeling this good – about something I did every day, no less. Wow. Lord, now I understand. Skeleton is my gift. I’ve just been too sick to see it. I made the 2002 Olympic team. I bought Gramp and the family tickets to Salt Lake City right away. They couldn’t wait to be in the stands, cheering me on. I felt relaxed, confident. Then, three weeks before the Games, my dad called.
“Gramp’s dead,” he said. “He was killed by a drunk driver.”
More than anything in my life, I’d wanted Gramp to see me win the gold, to go as far as he’d always believed I could. I could feel depression creeping back. Lord, I’m turning to you now, just as Gramp would have. Help me go on without him. Help me where even medicine can’t.
I phoned Dr. Lardon for advice. “Your grandfather can still be with you,” he said. At Dr. Lardon’s suggestion, I found an old photo of Gramp and, the day of my race, stuck it inside my helmet. Gramp, I thought, you’ll be with me all the way.
That was my belief as I took off down the Olympic track for my final run. Less than a minute later I’d won the gold. I pulled Gramp’s picture from my helmet and waved it in the air. It was as if all the joy that had been bottled up inside of me for 33 years came rushing out. For the first time in my life, I was happy. Do you know what that’s like? I didn’t. I felt joy. Pure joy.
Medication has kept my depression in check. Each day, I give thanks. Even more than Gramp, God has been with me, leading me out of darkness. I used to think winning a gold medal was the ultimate. Not anymore. Happiness, simple happiness, beats it every time.