Penn track and field’s Grace O’Shea experiments with Olympic skeleton

Penn track and field’s Grace O’Shea experiments with Olympic skeleton

Now Junior Grace O’Shea jumps over a hurdle at Franklin Field during a meet on April 4, 2021.
Credit: Samantha Turner

In between an internship with Bank of America and the upcoming college track and field season, junior Grace O’Shea spent two weeks of her summer at the Team USA bobsled training camp.

In order to qualify for the training camp, O’Shea participated in the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Digital Combine, where she had to complete an involved series of recordings, including an interview, videos of career highlights, and tapes of various jumps and time sprints. After finishing all that, O’Shea received a call from a random number while she was sitting in her backyard in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“I literally almost rolled out of my chair,” O’Shea said. “[I was] super pumped.”

The details were still not entirely hashed out — O’Shea had to find the time to travel to the training center while she was doing a summer-long internship in sales and trading — but she knew she absolutely wanted to do seize the chance. And as soon as she resolved to pursue the opportunity, the situation was sorted: she found time during her internship training to go to a dorm room in Lake Placid for two weeks in order to train in skeleton with future Olympians.

O’Shea’s path to skeleton was not destined throughout her track and field career, but it was foreshadowed. One of the assistant coaches at O’Shea’s high school had formerly competed in the Olympic Trials. An alum from O’Shea’s high school had switched from pursuing a professional track career in the United Kingdom to joining Team USA for bobsled. 

All of this started when O’Shea’s high school head coach, Bill Manzo, began working with his new transfer student, he suggested that she might excel at skeleton.

“I always told [my coaches], ‘[Doing skeleton] wouldn’t be feasible, I’m gonna pursue college track,’” O’Shea said. “And then years later, I found myself stepping foot in the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. for the exact sport.”

Skeleton is a winter sliding sport, in the same family as bobsled, where a person rides a sled down a frozen track, head-first. Unlike some other sliding sports, skeleton is always single-person, and involves a 40- to 50-meter sprint before jumping onto the sled and sliding down.

The sprint in skeleton is done while pushing the sled, so it requires a different form from standard sprinting, but many track athletes — sprinters especially — are still recruited because of their speed. For O’Shea, who has an exceptionally explosive first 30 to 40m, as well as hurdling experience, success at skeleton was almost natural.

“She has incredible speed. She’s very agile,” Manzo said. “For a hurdler, who has to learn how to be fast, then collapse their body and be low, going over a hurdle to maintain speed, it just seemed like she would be predisposed to being able to take to [skeleton], which she obviously did.”

Throughout her high school track career, Manzo got to see O’Shea’s speed and dedication on full display. O’Shea wanted to be the N.J. state champion from the very beginning of her work with Manzo — and upon her graduation from Ramapo High School, O’Shea was a two-time N.J. state champion.

O’Shea’s high school track records are littered with accolades. In her junior year of high school, she became the 55m hurdles N.J. state champion. In her senior year, after she was nominated as the favorite to repeat in the 55m hurdles, O’Shea was disqualified for leaving her lane after hurdles were knocked into her path.

“She was crushed. I mean, she was clear-cut going to be the New Jersey state champion,” Manzo said. “And then three days later, she crushed the Bergen County record at the Eastern State Championship.”

The time she recorded there now ranks third all-time in N.J. Continuing on in college, all of the work that O’Shea put into track is still paying dividends. O’Shea ranks seventh all-time in program history in the indoor 60m event, second all-time in the indoor 60m hurdles, and sixth all-time in outdoor 100m hurdles. And, oddly enough, this summer, one of the biggest pay-offs was the opportunity to participate in the Team USA training camp.

There were six to seven other prospective female skeleton athletes and around 10 other bobsled athletes in Lake Placid along with O’Shea. They all ate together in the dining hall and used the training centers and weight room. While she was there, O’Shea also had the chance to meet athletes on the upcoming 2022 Olympic team in Beijing, as well as an old friend from high school who was doing bobsled.

Every day, O’Shea and other prospective athletes practiced sled-pushing mechanics on a push track that Team USA had. On the very last day, their practice culminated in a push competition, where the athletes were granted three pushes, with the goal of recording the fastest time over all three pushes. O’Shea finished first of all the athletes there.

“She’s very competitive. With hurdling, she made herself an excellent student of the sport because she wanted to excel,” Manzo said. “So with skeleton, there was no doubt in my mind that she would show up, she would watch, listen, she would learn, she would adapt to whatever they asked her to do, and she would flourish.”

“The moment and opportunity in general is really something I’ll remember my whole life,” O’Shea said. “And I feel really blessed that Team USA even granted me this opportunity.”

What O’Shea got out of her experience — beyond, of course, the opportunity to work with Olympians and world-class training staff — was also a mental reprieve from a disappointing past season where Penn track and field athletes were unable to compete, except against other local teams in the spring.

“I think from the outside, people think that athletes kind of have a permanent spark. And I think that really couldn’t be further from the truth,” O’Shea said. “I was just dying to feel my spark or competitiveness again. And the idea of just going to the Olympic Training Center to compete against some of the best athletes in the nation was really a dream come true.”

From the beginning, O’Shea knew that she was going to have to juggle being a college athlete, never mind adding training for an entirely different sport on top of that. O’Shea was invited to the USA National Push Championships but had to decline due to college track commitments. 

“I plan on reassessing after my college track and undergrad years conclude,” O’Shea said. “It’s tough to see opportunities [pass] by, but I know that there’s always the Olympics in Milan coming up in a few years and potentially after college.”

For Manzo, who has been her high school coach and continued to be a large figure in O’Shea’s life, seeing O’Shea succeed from college track to bobsled is just a matter of seeing all her hard work and dedication come to fruition.

“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised,” Manzo said with a laugh. “I would love to be shocked by news like this… But to see her on the podium at an NCAA tournament, to see her become a member of Team USA, to see her put a medal on someday — I would be proud as if it was one of my own children doing it. But I wouldn’t be surprised. Nothing will surprise me as she continues to climb the ladder, in whatever she chooses to do.”

The future is still wide open for O’Shea. She still has two full seasons left at Penn left to accomplish anything in track, before she’ll graduate and have the opportunity to pursue skeleton. And if there’s anything to learn from Bill Manzo, it’s that whatever happens, it shouldn’t be a surprise.


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