Like so many times over the years, a young man with a physical disability approached Mike Shea on a ski slope.
“You have a minute?” he asked Shea.
No matter that Shea was busy preparing for an IPC World Cup competition in Landgraaf, Netherlands. No matter that the event kicked off the 2014-15 season.
Shea pulled the spectator aside anyway, patiently answering a litany of questions about adaptive snowboard racing.
“It’s part of my job,” he explained later.
Few do the job as well as the pleasant 32-year-old Californian, who has a knack for doing the right thing on and off a mountain.
Two years ago, in a breakout season, Shea won a silver medal in snowboard’s Paralympic debut in Sochi and was crowned its first world cup champion. A year ago, he won the world title in the LL2 banked slalom and finished No. 1 on the world cup circuit in both banked slalom and snowboardcross. Add to that his longtime work with people with physical disabilities and it’s no surprise that he’s a finalist for Team USA’s Male Paralympic Athlete of the Year.
“A tremendous honor; it means so much to me,” Shea said.
Repeating that success won’t be easy this winter. In addition to longtime teammates Evan Strong and Keith Gabel, Shea will face strong challenges from a legion of young snowboarders on the circuit, which kicks off Thursday on Landgraaf’s indoor course.
“Athletes from different countries have been popping up out of nowhere,” Shea said. “In 2012 there were three or four guys who were top contenders. Now we’re looking at least eight within a couple tenths of a second.
“Fortunately, age doesn’t make as much a difference in this sport. It’s not one of those sports where you can go all out. There are different approaches and different strategies involved in how you race, so it seems more suitable to athletes with experience. The (Landgraaf) course is smaller and more technical. You have to be a little more precise, and that’s also my style.”
Shea has never been one to shy from a challenge. He lost his lower left leg midway between the knee and the ankle in a wakeboarding accident at a California lake in 2002, when he was 19. Six months later he was back on his board, with a prosthesis, only to hit bottom in 2006 due to prescription-drug and alcohol dependence.
He found a route back to health when he started racing in 2010. His life changed again in May 2012 when he learned that snowboarding had been added to the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
Suddenly all else dropped away — coaching juniors, hanging out with friends, free time — and Sochi was all that mattered.
“It sort of consumes you,” he said. “Prior to that I was training three, four hours a day. I’d say I was easily training eight hours a day after that. I really kicked things into overdrive.”
Shea’s long-shot dream materialized when he found himself standing on a podium at Sochi’s Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, alongside Strong, the gold medalist, and Gabel, the bronze-medal winner. The “Three Amigos” had swept the field, a feat they hope to duplicate at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games.
“We’re all about the same age — the old-timers,” Shea said.
However, his relative old age also means he’s starting to think about life after elite international snowboarding, such as finding a new career.
“It’s a lot of stress, trying to figure that out while focusing on training and tying to stay on top of the game,” Shea said.
“Another problem is trying to stay on top of things financially. You’re never in a place long enough to work. I don’t even have the funding to move to Aspen to train full-time with my teammates.”
Having immersed himself in the sport so long, and endured some of life’s terrible trials, Shea stepped away from the scene this summer, deciding instead to unwind with his girlfriend and her boys.
“It was great, getting back to being a normal person instead of a traveling man,” he said. “I had to relearn how to be in society as a normal person, relearn what it’s like to have other things in your life. My focus on training kind of got lost. It set me back a little.
“But I’m hoping I can kick things back in gear once the world cup season starts.”
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.