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Striving against all odds: Desire and determination make The Iron Man

His name is Shay Eskew.  When you first meet him, the words “imposing physical presence” do not immediately come to mind. He is 39 years old, stands five feet eight inches in height, and weighs in at about 125 pounds—hardly the physical statistics most people would associate with the term “world class athlete,” especially when you notice the scars.  
But after you spend some time with him and learn his story, you realize that the term “world class” does not only apply to athletics but that Shay is also a “world class” person.  His story is an unusual one.
He was a normal, rambunctious boy who loved to play ball and many other games.  But at age eight his life took a dramatic turn.  He was standing a few feet from a smoldering outdoor fire   when a thoughtless adult threw on a bucket of gasoline to give it a boost.  Flames flashed out engulfing Shay and burning him over 35% of his body, mostly on the right side.  His family could ill-afford the extensive and expensive medical care they were faced with, so they applied to the Shriners. He was accepted at the Shriners’ hospital in Cincinnati where he spent three months, enduring over thirty surgeries one-half of which were skin grafts. Of course, the good skin for grafting had to come from the parts of his body that were not burned. This produced scar tissue on that part, leaving him with scar tissue over 65% of his body.  
Since scar tissue does not have the elasticity of normal skin, exercises to stretch it and produce normal movement are excruciating, making the cure more painful than the injury. Shay had to learn to walk again and to write with his left hand before he went back to school.
His doctors told his family that he would never be able to play sports.  But Shay says he learned very early that a person’s desire to do something is directly proportional to the amount of pain the person is willing to endure in order to do it.  Two months after his discharge from the hospital, he was playing baseball again. Six months after discharge, he was playing football. His father had to add extra padding in his shoulder pads to accommodate the scar tissue.  He became a wrestler in high school, placing second in the State of Georgia in his weight class and being named to the high school All-American team. In college at the University of Tennessee, Shay took up boxing where he was three-time school champion in his weight class, never losing a match. So much for the little boy “who would never be able to play sports.”
But these sports were only warm-ups for what Shay decided to try in 2009— Iron Man Competition. This test of athletic skill and endurance is without a doubt the most demanding and arduous physical competition yet devised. It consists of a 2.4 mile ocean swim, biking for 112 miles, and a full marathon—26.2 miles.  And these are all done in one day with no breaks between events.  It truly takes an “iron man” to complete them all.
But since Shay works full-time in a health care revenue cycle company and he and his wife Brooke now have four children, when would he find time to train?  He vowed not to rob either his job or his family for training time, so he began rising at 4:00 a.m. and getting it done  before going to work.
“…want to finish”
Many people enter this competition saying, “I just want to finish.”  Shay’s goal was to finish AND to do well.  And he has. He has been nationally ranked, a three-time member of Team USA, and ranked sixth nationally in the half-marathon.  He has competed in races in Florida, Utah, North Carolina and in the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Shay is being modest when he says that he is not a great athlete but that he is just a great competitor.  His family went with him to Kona leading him to observe that in a way the race was the easiest part compared to getting all the children, ages 1 through 7, through airports and hotels.
In these races Shay faces a problem that other participants do not have to deal with.  Because of the scar tissue, a large portion of his body does not sweat, making him prone to dehydration.  And since there are no rest stops, he says that one of the hardest things he had to learn to do was to pee in his pants while biking.  So when you see one of these racers splashing themselves with water, they are not only cooling off but also diluting urine.
In spite of all the things Shay has been through, he has never lost his sense of humor nor his ability to laugh at himself.  He lost his right ear to infection and wears a “snap-on,” which he is prone to lose or misplace.  
Probably the most unusual place it’s come off was in the middle of a dance floor during a spirited dance competition. The other dancers were a tad disconcerted.
Shay is a member of Franklin’s Breakfast Rotary Club where he often sits with a group of the older members and goes with them each year to deliver Christmas baskets.  His reason for hanging with the older group: “They’ve been a lot farther down life’s road than I have. I think I can learn something from them.”  While that may be true, everyone can learn something from Shay Eskew, a true Iron Man.
An added note:  Shay does inspirational and motivational speaking, especially to young people.  He can be contacted at :
Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at

Posted on: 1/22/2014


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