ACE Program helps Paralympic snowboarder craft his woodworking business
by Devin Lowe
For many Olympic and Paralympic athletes, their first love is their sport. But Paralympic snowboarder Mike Shea found another passion off the slopes that he picked up before he ever launched out of a starting gate: the craft of woodworking.
By Shea’s account, it started around 10 years ago when he built a doghouse in just one afternoon.
“It started as a hobby and, kind of overnight, turned into somewhat of a profession,” he says.
Soon, he began to build his business by selling handcrafted items like cutting boards and boxes to his friends and family. Then, in 2010, he received a phone call from the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado, who wanted him to try snowboarding for the Paralympic team.
So he sold the majority of his woodworking equipment and set off for Colorado to chase a new dream. His snowboarding career would bring him to two Paralympic Winter Games and a silver medal in snowboard-cross in 2014, as well as one gold and two bronze medals across three Para snowboarding world championships.
After competing in PyeongChang, Shea wasn’t sure what his future would hold—only that he wanted woodworking to be part of it. That’s where the USOC’s Athlete Career and Education Program came through with a post-Games summit that helped him think through next steps.
“Just the education they’ve given us with their seminars, mapping out your future, where you want to be, that alone has helped me so much,” Shea says. “And that’s not even including this [entrepreneurship event] they had six months ago.”
The event, held at the Los Angeles home of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation donor Alex Popa in the summer of 2018, paired up athletes with entrepreneurs and investors in their fields. At the reception, he struck up a conversation with Jiake Liu, co-founder of Outer, a direct-to-consumer furniture company, and continued to keep in touch about business opportunities.
“I was able to talk to him and pick his brain about how he gets the most out of his business, and that alone has just helped me so much,” he says.
Shea relaunched his woodworking business under a new name – Altered Grain Design – and set up shop with all-new tools. With a baby on the way, he made the decision to take the 2018-19 snowboarding season off and focus on his other craft.
The craftsmanship came easy, and the ACE Program was there to help him navigate the business side of his company through entrepreneurship events and seminars.
“Some of the ACE events I did in the last year gave me a really good perspective on what I need to do in order to run a business properly,” Shea says. “I’ve always considered myself a woodworker and never really a businessman, and I’m realizing this year, especially with some of my mentors that I’ve been talking to, that in order to make good money and to be sustainable at that, you have to be a good businessman.”
“You need to know where your finances are, you need to know how much things cost, how much things cost to make. I’ve learned all of that this year, and it’s given me a new perspective on how to run my business.”
Shea isn’t ready to say for sure whether he’s done competing, and he plans on picking up training again this fall. But when the time is right to transition away from elite competition, he has a thriving business in a position to succeed, in part thanks to the ACE Program and the connections he’s made through ACE-facilitated networking events.
“I struggled for so long with how I was going to leave the sport [when the time came], what I was going to do after being a professional athlete, and for years I didn’t really know how I was going to do that,” Shea says. “I knew I wanted to do woodworking, but I struggled to map out my future in that way, and the ACE Program really helps Olympic and Paralympic athletes gain knowledge through their program that they can have something after being an athlete.
“I think that that’s something that a lot of people really need in the Paralympic and Olympic community. So I would 100% encourage any [athlete] to take advantage of the ACE Program.”
The ACE Program offers a variety of career and education resources for currently competing athletes and those who are transitioning out of elite sport. For more information on resources available to Team USA athletes through the ACE Program, including the next ACE Business Startup Workshop on Oct. 20-24 in San Diego, please visit teamusa.org/ace. To give a philanthropic gift to the ACE Program, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.