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Athletes with Irish connections take home Olympic medals

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Ireland doesn’t usually hold out much hope of success at the Winter Olympics, but this year’s event in Salt Lake City has aroused a lot more attention than usual in the Emerald Isle.

Lord Clifton Wrottesley, 33, who spent the first three years of his life in Abbeyknockmoy, Co. Galway, just missed out on a medal, finishing fourth in the men’s skeleton race, while Lurgan, Co. Armagh-born ice hockey player Geraldine Heaney won gold with the Canadian team, as did Belfast native Owen Nolan, led Canada to a 5-2 trouncing of the U.S. in the men’s final, helping Canada end a 50-year drought. Nolan plays for the San Jose Sharks.

In addition, there were strong connections to the Ireland among American gold medalists. Sarah Hughes, who won the women’s figure skating gold medal, stunning favored Michelle Kwan and, indeed, the world, is the granddaughter of Irish immigrants to Canada. Her grandfather, according to Newsday, played professional soccer in Ireland in the 1930s. Her own father played ice hockey at Cornell with future NHL Hall of Fame goalkeeper Ken Dryden and was a member of the 1970 NCAA national championship team.

Irish American Jim Shea, who won the skeleton, hails from a line of Winter Olympics competitors. His grandfather Jack Shea, who was killed at 91 by a drunk driver just weeks before the Salt Lake City games, won gold medals in the 500- and 1500-meter speed skating races at the 1932 Olympic Winter Games in his native Lake Placid. In 1936, Shea decided not to skate at the Olympics held in Germany, because of Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitism campaign. Shea later said he had no regrets about foregoing a chance to skate at the 1936 Olympic Winter Games stating, “I’m proud I didn’t go. It was the right thing to do,” he once said.

Shea’s son Jim Shea Sr. competed in the Nordic combined and cross-country skiing at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

As for Wrottesley, the Dublin-born British baron was just fractions of a second away from becoming Ireland’s first ever winter medal winner, competing in the event won by Jim Shea Jr.

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Wearing a shamrock on his suit, Wrottesley roared down the Salt Lake City bobsled track at more than 80 miles per hour in the first heat last week on a sled that was little bigger than a kitchen tray with handles. He clocked the third fastest time but the bronze was just snatched away from him by a slower second heat. He lost out by a slender 0.42 of a second.

The president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Pat Hickey, described his achievement as “unbelievable.”

Wrottesley, whose title dates back to 1838, left Ireland as a toddler. He was educated at Eton and Edinburgh University and then was an officer in the Grenadier Guards.

Among the hockey stars, Owen recently said that if he was still in Ireland, he would have been just as fanatical about sports.

“It definitely would have been different, but I played soccer first and then baseball, and then I eventually got into ice hockey,” he said. “If I was still in Ireland, I’d probably have given soccer a shot, or even hurling.”

Heaney, who left Lurgan as an infant, is already a household name in hockey-crazed Canada. A six-time world champion, she has won 12 national title with the Beatrice ‘ros of Toronto. She has a large extended family in the North that she keeps in regular contact with.

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