Skeleton racer Annie O’Shea admitted she had a hard time wearing the U.S. Olympic apparel at the Team USA Media Summit in September.
Oh, everything looked great on her. But once O’Shea finished the interviews and photo shoots, she planned to fold the clothes up and put them away in her dresser—out of sight, if not out of mind.
“I won’t wear it,” O’Shea said. “Anything that says Olympic team will be retired until February. I have to earn it.”
The 30-year-old has been an Olympic hopeful for more than a decade, coming tantalizingly close to making the U.S. team twice. Last March, she won her third national title.
This was supposed to be O’Shea’s year. But as she starts the 2017-18 season Saturday in Canada at the Whistler, British Columbia, track, O’Shea is not where she wants to be.
After three straight years on the prestigious world cup tour, O’Shea did not qualify for the world cup team this season. Instead, she’ll compete one level down, on the Intercontinental Cup circuit.
“Not exactly the ideal situation,” O’Shea posted on Instagram, adding hashtags that included #determination #notmeanttobeeasy and #findthepositive.
But not an impossible one, either.
Up to three women will qualify in skeleton for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team on Jan. 15 based on points earned throughout the season on world cup, Intercontinental Cup, Europe Cup and North American Cup. Three U.S. women are on world cup and three are on ICC.
“I just have to go out and race super awesome,” O’Shea said. “I don’t like to say, ‘If it’s meant to be, it’ll be.’ But if I put everything in, I will get out exactly what I should.”
Most of the world’s top skeleton racers, including three-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender of Team USA, are on world cup, so the competition O’Shea faces won’t be as stiff as she slides headfirst down an icy track at speeds up to 90 miles per hour.
If she wins an ICC race, she’ll get 120 points, which puts her ahead of someone on the world cup tour finishing 14th with 112 points. If O’Shea is fifth, she’ll out-point a world cup athlete who is 17th and 10th is better than a world cup athlete placing 20th.
“It’s honestly less stressful,” O’Shea said. “There are no cameras. The focus is just on sliding. We get a few more training runs, so you do have some perks to being on the Intercontinental Cup circuit.”
One huge drawback is financial. O’Shea has to pay her own way on the ICC while world cup athletes are fully funded. She opted not to wait tables last summer so she wouldn’t be exhausted going into the season. In hindsight, O’Shea could have used the money. But on the plus side, she had time to date and said, “I got an amazing boyfriend from this summer. It’s a totally different outcome.”
This isn’t the first time O’Shea has competed Intercontinental Cup. In both of her previous Olympic seasons, 2009-10 and 2013-14, she raced on the lower circuit.
“I was thinking about that last week, and it brought tears to my eyes,” O’Shea said. “I had to redo my confidence plan a little bit, but my goal is still the same. I’m still going to work just as hard.”
Yet she has a different mindset than she did in her previous Olympic campaigns.
“I’ll probably lean more on family and friends and my life coach when I feel like I’m struggling or a little bit sad,” O’Shea said. “If I stay healthy mentally and physically, maybe I can change my history – rewrite it a little bit.”
She can start this weekend, competing Saturday and Sunday at the track built for the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010. O’Shea will then race in Calgary, Alberta Nov. 12-13; in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Jan. 4-5; and conclude in Altenberg, Germany, Jan. 12-13.
Whistler is one of O’Shea’s favorite tracks. “It’s super technical, really difficult,” O’Shea said. “I love being busy on my sled, having to steer a lot, having to figure things out.”
Team USA coaches have the discretion to swap ICC competitors with world cup athletes as the season progresses.
“I want to be a threat,” O’Shea said. “If I can race well, the pressure’s on my teammates. ‘I’m coming for you.’”
Yet O’Shea knows that she has only herself to blame for being in this position. She got off to a rough start in Calgary for the first two races of the U.S. team trials. O’Shea said she had trouble getting her head into racing mode since she was accustomed to starting the season in Lake Placid, New York. She was eighth in the first race, sixth in the second.
“I wasn’t confident and it was just really difficult,” she said.
Moving on to Lake Placid, O’Shea placed second in the third race and won the final race. But that wasn’t enough. Uhlaender, Kendall Wesenberg and Savannah Graybill advanced to the world cup, with O’Shea, Megan Henry and Gracie Clapp-Taylor going to the ICC.
While Uhlaender is laser-focused on making her fourth Olympic team, she said of O’Shea, “I’d be so happy for her to accomplish her dreams.”
O’Shea’s original dreams had nothing to do with snow and ice. “I really hate the cold,” she said. “I hate winter.”
She didn’t watch any of the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002, when Tristan Gale and Jimmy Shea won the first skeleton gold medals for Team USA. O’Shea was strictly a summer athlete, competing in track and field in the pentathlon.
James Daly, whose son John is an Olympic skeleton racer, approached O’Shea’s parents at New York’s Empire State Games and suggested that she try the sport. They drove her the six hours from their Long Island home to a camp in Lake Placid when she was 17 and entering her senior year of high school.
“It was totally new and super scary,” O’Shea said. “I got to the bottom, I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t know why I was doing it, and then every day, I was like, ‘OK, you can do this.’ I talked myself off the ledge.”
When her parents picked her up, O’Shea lied. Instead of saying the experience was terrifying, she said it was great.
So when O’Shea was invited to another camp, she had no reason to decline. “I guess I kept my freak-outs very internal,” she said, “so no one really knew – which was a plus – or else I probably wouldn’t be here.”
This time, O’Shea loved it. “I don’t know what happened,” said O’Shea, who found that running and launching was sort of like the long jump. “It was fun, I liked the people, I liked the feeling. I still don’t like the cold.”
She said skeleton racing “feels like you’re floating – very quickly.”
She’s been separated from her sled only once, in Koenigssee, Germany. “It didn’t cross the finish line, and neither did I,” O’Shea said. “I probably slid on my backside another 20 meters, and then came to a stop, screaming like a lunatic because it just burns the living daylights out of you.”
O’Shea got her first taste of the world cup circuit in 2007-08, finishing 17th overall, including two top-10 finishes. When O’Shea didn’t make the 2010 Olympic team, she wasn’t too upset, thinking, “I’m close, I can get there next time.”
O’Shea had her best season in 2010-11, finishing 11th overall in the world cup and winning her first national title. The following season, O’Shea earned her first world cup podium with a silver medal in La Plagne, France.
“I thought, ‘This is my turning point,’” O’Shea said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
But it wasn’t. Walking around one day, she said, “I felt like someone just broke my knee.”
It was a torn lateral meniscus, requiring surgery in the summer of 2012.
“It should have been super easy to come back from, but it was terrible for me,” O’Shea said.
She couldn’t fully bend down for a year. And she cried every day.
“I was the most unhappy person and no one should have been around me,” O’Shea said. “Then I was like, ‘Well, it’s Olympic year. I’m not going to be done now.’”
Luck, however, wasn’t on her side. Back on the ICC, she was warming up for the first race of the season when she stepped in a hole. “It sounds so un-athletic,” she said.
O’Shea sprained her ankle and bruised her talus. She fainted, too.
“It was just a disaster,” she said. “I became miserable yet again.”
O’Shea missed another Olympic team while Noelle Pikus-Pace won the silver medal.
The next season, O’Shea’s coaches told her she needed to get it together, or she could be finished.
“And I was just like mediocre,” she said. “Nothing was terrible, but nothing was great.”
During the world championships, O’Shea found out that one of her childhood friends had died. At the funeral, her friend’s father told her, “I feel like you need to talk to someone. I think you need a life coach.”
O’Shea initially resisted the idea, then changed her mind. She has been working with a life coach since prior to the 2015-16 season, though they have never met in person.
O’Shea has learned to let go of her anger, or at least channel it where it can help. She is also better at expressing the way she is feeling, especially with her coaches.
That season O’Shea won her first world cup gold medal in Lake Placid, and was fifth at the 2016 world championships.
Although she earned her MBA in international business in October 2016, the only international business O’Shea is currently interested in conducting is on her sled.
“I just love it,” O’Shea said. “I just always wanted to see what I could do. Can I do it? Can I be better? Is this meant for me?
“And every time I said ‘Is it meant for me?’ My answer is 'Yes!' so I kept going.”