After suffering an injury from a boating accident in September 2002 that required a below-knee amputation of his left leg, Michael Shea, Jr. didn’t know what was going to be possible. For a while, he gave up sports and concentrated on his vocation. But through happenstance, he was asked to be in a video shoot for Madonna that was intended for MTV (the footage ended up not being used). It was at this event, however, that he met snowboarder Amy Purdy. Until then, he had never even met another amputee before.
In 2009, Shea would join Purdy in Lake Tahoe at a sports camp hosted by Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Purdy (and chapter of Disabled Sports USA) that is dedicated to introducing people with physical challenges to action sports. Growing up, Shea identified with extreme sports like skateboarding, mountain biking, and snowboarding, but he didn’t know what to expect given the limb loss. “Although I started snowboarding when I was fifteen, I had no idea what I was going to be able to do,” Shea said. But clearly, all it took was that one experience.
When he first started out with adaptive snowboarding, Shea had nothing but leg problems. He struggled with things like the binding not being right and other issues. “But the more and more I did it, the easier it became,” Shea said. He enjoyed the sport recreationally at first as it was a nice escape from everyday life. “I debated whether to make that switch (from recreational to competitive),” he said.
Just a few months after starting back into the sport, in March 2010, Shea entered the US Nationals at Copper Mountain, finishing 6th or 7th (out of 10 competitors) in his first race. But he has always believed in working hard and wanting something better for yourself. And that philosophy paid off. In 2012, he took home a bronze medal at the World Championship in Snowboard-Cross. It was during those years that a lot of work was being done to have IPC, the International Paralympic Committee, recognize snowboarding as a sport.
Then comes the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi and snowboarding makes its inaugural debut. Shea goes over as part of Team USA. He and his family had always watched the opening and closing ceremonies so it was monumental just to walk out in the stadium. “I didn’t have any expectations as I was just glad to be there,” he said. He would earn a Silver medal in the Snowboard Cross competition as part of a 1,2,3 sweep for Team USA (teammate Evan Strong took Gold and Keith Gabel took Bronze). Standing on the podium, Shea was blown away with stimulation and all that was going on. “It didn’t really sink in until I got home,” he said about being a medalist.
Given the Sochi sweep, Shea, Strong, and Gabel have been referred to as the Three Amigos. In fact, they became close friends after the games. “There was instant camaraderie between us,” he said. Since the 2014 games, the competition between the three has also been interesting to watch, often trading back and forth wins between them. Shea won a Gold Medal (in Banked Slalom) at the 2015 World Championship and a Bronze Medal in 2017 (Snowboard-Cross).
Shea will be returning to the Winter Paralympic Games in 2018, which will take place in PyeongChang, South Korea, and he admits it will be harder this time but that he has higher expectations. “Setting expectations can get us into trouble,” he said. “But I would like to be on the podium and do better than last time.” In addition to Strong and Gabel, there are a number of other world-class athletes that he will have to face. “It is amazing to see the progression in the sport,” he said.
Since 2013, Shea has also been a regular at The Hartford Ski Spectacular, one of the nation’s largest winter sports festivals for people with disabilities that is hosted by Disabled Sports USA in Breckenridge, Colorado. As someone who has been a developmental coach for others, he has seen so many smiles at that event that makes it a must for him annually. “There is no event in the world that touches more people wanting to get on the mountain,” he said.
After retiring from competition, the former Disabled Sports USA board member expects to continue helping others pursue their interests in adaptive snowboarding. He has been a developmental coach at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in the past and wants to get back to that at some point.
To those that want to pursue snowboarding at the competitive level, Shea suggests you must have PACE (Passion, Attitude, Commitment, and Enjoyment). “You have to have a drive and desire to pursue adaptive snowboarding at the competitive level. It is also important to have the right attitude and examine how you view yourself and how others view you. You must have commitment and be willing to put in 100 percent. And you must enjoy the sport. If you’re not loving it, why are you doing it?” he said.
Photo Credit: Joe Kusumoto