By Troy Hawks
Only two weeks after hanging out and signing autographs at the Denver Ski and Snowboard Expo (Nov. 13-16), paralympic athlete and 2014 silver medalist Mike Shea won his first World Cup event of the season and days later got his invitation to compete in the Adaptive Boarder X at this the 2015 Winter X Games Jan. 22 25 at Buttermilk.
Eight months ago he was standing on a podium at Russias Rosa Khutor Alpine Centre just 30 miles from the Black Sea. That moment was the realization of a dream of more than four years.
Shea, then donning a shining silver medal, was one third of the U.S. sweep of the Olympic debut of paralympic snowboard cross. Standing with Shea were teammates Evan Strong, gold medalist, and Keith Gabel, who won bronze.
If theres such a thing as break-out season in ski and snowboard racing, 2013/14 was it for Shea. His silver medal performance in Sochi frosted a season that included becoming the first overall para-snowboard World Cup Champion and he posted several other first and second place finishes.
But seven years earlier Shea was on the opposite end of the spectrum of an Olympic silver medalist. He was an alcoholic and addicted to pain medication. It was a road he had been traveling down for the past few years. Selfishness grew, destructive incidents mounted, and family and friends grew tired of being lied to and used. Shea finally reached the roads dead end in 2006.
I had no friends and my family was giving me an ultimatum; thats when I realized I had nothing left, he says.
Shea says the trigger point of his downward spiral occurred four years earlier during an otherwise routine day of wakeboarding with friends. The lake they were on was just down the street from his Los Angeles home, and he and his friends went there several days a week.
On this day, the lake was windy and choppy so the group headed for calmer waters. On the way to the other side of the lake, the boat hit a cross wake and bounced Shea overboard. The jolt also dislodged the ski rope, which became wound around Sheas left ankle.
Before the boat could stop, the slack in the rope zipped off the water and tightened around Sheas ankle. In a nano-second, Sheas lower leg was amputated and his life was forever changed.
I remember feeling something kind of funny, and when I was at the rear deck of the boat, I saw that the water was blood red all around me for about 100 yards, Shea says. Thats when I realized something was very wrong, and finally when I got out of the water I saw half of my leg was missing.
From here, Shea recounts a continuation of the nightmare. His friends tried several times to reach 911 from the boat, but failed to connect on each attempt. They raced back to the dock, and by then paramedics were on hand, but Shea needed to be evacuated.
Enter more bad news: Emergency response helicopters at the nearest hospital were on lock-down because of a bomb scare at the University of Southern California.
And then Sheas luck did an about-face. His dad works for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and when he heard about his sons life-threatening accident, he asked a favor of his colleagues. Within minutes, the LAPD dispatched a helicopter that picked up Shea at the dock and took him to the university campus hospital.
Shea was out of the hospital after only a few days, and got his first prosthetic leg a month later. He was back on-snow experimenting on his snowboard at nearby Mt. High Resort in just three months. In short time he was well on his way to physical recovery, but Shea would have other wounds to heal.
Leading up to my accident I was battling the demons of drug addiction and alcoholism, my life had taken a horrible turn down the path of self destruction, and I abandoned my family and the ones who cared most about me, Shea says. The accident was a wake-up call, and it was an important chapter in my overall recovery.
Shea is like so many other action sports athletes. He describes himself as an adrenaline junky with an addictive personality.
I think the pain medication ultimately is what really ignited everything, he says. I realized that I hadnt dealt with my leg on sober terms, I was masking it with pain killers and alcohol, it was a delayed reaction.
Ultimately, Shea found his low. He went to rehab in the later part of 2007. He sobered up, and began woodworking. His first projects were dog houses, and then he graduated to custom entertainment centers. Then, he got the phone call in 2010.
It was a coach from the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) that he had met at a snowboard camp in Tahoe, telling him that the International Paralympic Committee was considering adding competitive snowboarding events. He sold his woodworking tools for pennies on the dollar and relocated to Winter Park Resort so he could start training right away. Two years later he read the official news online: Snowboard-cross had been added to the Paralympics.
I kept hitting the refresh button, and when I saw the headline, I got a great sense of excitement, he says upon seeing the reading the news online. Everybody, disabled, able-bodied, adults, everyone dreams to be an Olympian.
Shea had already been training to make U.S. team, but when this news came down, his training hit overdrive.
We went from being snowboarders, to being full-on athletes, our training went to a whole different level, he says.
Last season the trio of Shea, Strong, and Gabel became a familiar one at (or very near) the podium of major competitions. Last years Paralympic Winter Games featured a record number of events and athletes, as well as record ticket sales and media coverage.
Sochi was a neat experience for me, it was something we had been in anticipation of for four years of training, says Shea. During opening ceremonies, everything really hit home.
And now he wants even more. His goal is to compete in every competitive snowboard event at the 2018 Winter Paralympics. In the meantime, hes built a pretty strong fan base, hes active on Facebook and Twitter, and hes an icon to a few up-and-coming young racers at NSCD.
I like to pass down the art of snowboarding, and Im a strong believer in the Winter Park program, Shea says. I had another coach tell me that the boy Ive been working with looks like me when he snowboards, its very fulfilling to see the result of your coaching.
Theres about 6,800 miles between the place where Mike Shea hit his dead end and the place where he realized his dream. Now, hes leaving both his wake and looking even further down the fall line. When you hit a dead end, its time to turn around and find a new path. When you realize a dream, its time to make a new one.