Mike Shea woke up one morning in Rio de Janeiro, headed to Copacabana Beach, grabbed some Brazilian coffee and watched the sunrise on the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean.
He then met some locals on the point, traded a Team USA backpack for a paddleboard session in Guanabara Bay and hung out with his trading partners to discuss surfing and Brazilian culture.
“We had lunch, exchanged information and then it was back to the village,” said Shea, who was in Rio working during the 2016 Paralympic Games. “Who needs a fancy tour of Christ the Redeemer when you can interact with the locals to experience culture firsthand?”
Shea is a Paralympic snowboarder who worked in Rio during the Games as an athlete service coordinator for the U.S. Paralympic Team. Not all days were fun and games, as his role was to oversee all the athletes’ needs in the athlete service center and to help bridge any communication gaps between competitors and United States Olympic Committee staff.
“If an athlete had a question about transportation, scheduling, village layout or anything related to the Games, we were there to provide that information,” Shea said. “It was really cool to be a part of that process because it gave me a new perspective on the Games. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes.”
Shea heard about the opportunity from his snowboard team manager last winter. He immediately applied.
Having won a silver medal at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, he already knew what it takes to compete on the highest levels. He didn’t want to pass up a chance to work in Rio and experience the Games from a new perspective.
He took the experience from Rio and transferred that energy back into his training. Last week he won two bronze medals at the IPC Snowboard World Cup in Landgraaf, Netherlands.
“Being in Rio and seeing the American athletes accomplish their lifelong goals was a wake up call for me,” Shea said. “As Paralympians, we train years for a single shot at making history. It’s easy to forget why we do what we do. Every four years, the Games rolls around and we wake up to realize what we have been working for all along. Being in Rio with all of the athletes woke me up.”
His next event is not far away as he’ll compete at the IPC Snowboard World Cup in La Molina, Spain, the week of Jan. 16-21. He said training has been difficult on his 33-year-old body.
“Just when I feel like I’m getting into my groove, I’m faced with an injury or a setback,” Shea said. “I suppose that’s what happens when you get older. My body is angry with me for the years of hell I’ve put it through.”
Shea considers his time in Rio a rejuvenation of his mind to offset any physical roadblocks.
“Working with summer athletes was an amazing experience,” he said. “It’s so easy to get trapped in the world of winter sports; it’s a small group of athletes and staff who all know each other. The summer side has thousands of athletes from all walks of life. It was a shock to see so many people competing from third-world countries — athletes with poor economies and little or no national team support. You hardly see that on the winter side.”
Shea said he worked as an athlete service coordinator alongside rower Jamie Redman and the USOC’s director of diversity and inclusion, Jason Thompson. He said they visited Rio months before the Games to “get a lay of the land” and meet with members of the Rio Organizing Committee. They visited all of the venues and went back to Rio about 10 days before the Games began.
There, they unpacked boxes of Team USA stickers, pictures, rugs, TVs, board games and snacks — anything to make the athletes feel at home while they are thousands of miles away from American living, he said.
Once the athletes arrived, the ASCs were there to answer any of the athletes’ questions.
“We conducted the nomination ceremony for the election of the U.S. flag bearer, helped athletes acquire friends and family passes for the village and worked with Rio 2016 to make sure athletes had tickets to see competitions on their days off,” Shea said.
Now he focuses on getting back to another year of competition and making it to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games. That will include less time in the snow and lots of stretching and mobility work.
“This means managing the little time I do have to be productive,” Shea said. “I can say one thing: the passion to be on top is alive and well. I have a vision for PyeongChang and I expect nothing less. The hard work will pay off.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.