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Sports Agent Shep Goldberg Wielded Influence Behind The Scenes

By Lynn Rutherford | Nov. 14, 2014, 9:08 p.m. (ET)


For the past 20 years, Shep Goldberg has been the agent and manager behind U.S. figure skating legend Michelle Kwan.

When Shep Goldberg died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at age 65, the Olympic movement lost one of its unsung heroes.

The tall, imposing sports agent — who could be gruff and guarded, usually just before a big smile broke out over his face — guided the careers of two of the most popular Olympians of their eras: Mary Lou Retton, a powerhouse gymnast with a pixie haircut and the first U.S. woman to win Olympic all-around gold; and graceful Michelle Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist who personified U.S. figure skating for a decade.

“For more than 20 years, Shep stood by my side as my manager, confidante and trusted adviser,” Kwan said in a statement. “He cared for me like I was his own daughter, helping me with difficult decisions, making jokes when I needed a laugh, and was always there through good times and bad.”

Goldberg also worked for several years with 2010 Olympic figure skating champion Evan Lysacek, as well as two-time Olympic champion Dick Button (1948, 1952). His newest client was up-and-coming U.S. figure skating star Jason Brown, the 2014 Olympian and YouTube star famous for his electrifying “Riverdance” routine.

“Shep lived his life and conducted business with loyalty, compassion, dignity and ethics, things that are becoming less common in today's world,” Lysacek said in a statement. “He was a rare man and a rare friend. I miss him already.”

Goldberg kept a low profile as he operated behind the scenes, using vast contacts, experience and skill to create opportunities for his clients while also supporting the United States Olympic Committee in its fundraising and branding endeavors.

“We will miss him,” Chris Coleman, the USOC’s associate director of athlete marketing, said. “Our relationship was deeper than the daily routine. Shep was a true gentleman who really did right by his athletes. It wasn’t only about financial transactions, it was about making his athletes, and the USOC, look good.”

A native of Philadelphia, Goldberg resided with his family in Northfield, Michigan, since 1996. Prior to becoming a sports agent he held high-level public relations jobs for the Oakland Athletics, the NHL’s Golden Seals and the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the 1970s, he formed long-term relationships with the country’s most prominent sportswriters, many of whom mourned his passing with moving tributes this week.

In 1984, the 16-year-old Retton won five medals at the Los Angeles Games. Over the next decade, Goldberg built her into a genuine American sports celebrity with well-chosen endorsements — including the famous Wheatie’s box — as well as film cameos and countless public-service appearances.

Kwan’s family hired Goldberg in 1994, after the 13-year-old won the silver medal at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and was named alternate to the 1994 U.S. Olympic Team. The Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding soap opera had put the media spotlight square on to figure skating, and Kwan was caught in the glare.

The California skater competed internationally for 13 years, winning nine U.S. titles, five world championships and two Olympic medals. She matured into one of the most beloved Olympians of all time, due mainly to her great on-ice gifts but also to Goldberg’s formidable gate keeping and public relations skills. His dedication brought him into frequent contact with many USOC staffers.

“Shep was very interested in providing support to the USOC on an international level, since Michelle Kwan in particular was so universally loved,” Coleman said. “He was always offering support to us.”

In recent years, Kwan and Lysacek traveled for the U.S. Department of State as sports envoys, as part of a program to strengthen U.S. relations with countries including Russia, China and several Eastern European nations. Kwan was appointed Senior Advisor for Public Diplomacy and Goldberg made it his business to involve the USOC in her efforts.

“We worked very closely with Shep and his clients on USOC fundraising efforts, as well as to provide support for our sponsors,” Coleman said. “Michelle Kwan is a wonderful general ambassador for the Olympic movement and we received many benefits from her fine work.”

As a tribute to Goldberg, the USOC is presenting an Olympic flag to his widow, Janet, and daughters Carley and Haley.

“These flags are presented to Olympians and Paralympians, so this is special,” Coleman said. “Shep has a clear influence on shaping the lives of iconic Olympians, and those champions really epitomize the U.S. Olympic brand. We’re so very thankful for all of his efforts over the years.”

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.