Shay Eskew is an extreme sports competitor, inspirational speaker and author based in Nashville, Tennessee. Shay’s story started on August 4 1982 when he was eight years old. His mother had asked him to warn their neighbours that they had an aggressive yellow jackets nest in the ground so he and his seven-year old friend walked across to the neighbours to show them where it was. They were standing about 15 feet from the nest when some gasoline was thrown at the nest and a match struck. Immediately Shay realised the some gasoline had hit him on the right side of his face and his friend on the left side. Instantly they were both engulfed in flames, Shay then spent the next three months in hospital and has been in and out of hospital over the last 36 years and undergone 35 surgeries.
Shay had scars over 65% of body, his right ear was amputated and his right arm could not be lifted over his head for three years so he had to learn to write with his left hand to complete third grade. His neck was at a 60% angle and it took three years to be able to hold his head up straight. He had to wear orthotic braces and these along with the scarring meant people would stop and stare and even make comments. Around the same time Wes Craven had released his movie Nightmare on Elm Street with the main character of Freddie Kruger, so when Shay went back to school, kids called him Freddie and that was how he felt. He wouldn’t look at the right side of his face and cried himself to sleep for months but then came to realise that nothing would change what had happened to him. It was something that he was going to have to live with but it wasn’t something to be ashamed of, he’d done nothing wrong, it was an accident.
Shay feels his strong faith helped him deal with the situation he had found himself in but he also looked at the alternatives, of feeling sorry for himself and of being a victim. When he went back to the hospital and saw other children who were in a far worse position than him and were continuing as if nothing was wrong he found it a great reinforcement. He took inspiration from other people, reading books and watching films that were about overcoming adversity and decided at an early age that he did not want to be surrounded by negativity and that there is a choice – quit or be a survivor.
Sport was a big healer. Shay knew the scars would not go away but he believed he could become a great athlete despite doctors telling him when he first got burned that he would never be competitive in sports again. He knew improvement wouldn’t happen overnight as the burns recovery programme head shown him the benefit of small gains. He knew it would be painful but that through pain comes growth and that was necessary to achieve his goals. He thought that if he was a good athlete, people would have a reason to stare at him rather than the scars.
Shay used the pain as a sign of getting better. Sometimes pain is seen as a sign not to do anything but he sees it as a reinforcement that allowed him to excel in sports where pain is a criteria. He wrestled and boxed, and then got into Ironman racing and over the last four years has been ranked in the top 1%. Shay feels this is not because he was a great athlete but because he was a great competitor who could endure more pain for longer. The sports he competed in were not just about pure athleticism but about who had the grit and the perseverance to keep pushing when everything in your mind and body said quit.
Ironman is a triathlon, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon all to be completed within 17 hours. Shay lost a mentor to pancreatic cancer in 2008 and decided to complete in the next Ironman challenge in his honour. Five months later did a ½ Ironman and then started training properly for a full Ironman. Looking at Ironman as a whole, can seem really hard but when you start to work through a training programme you start to look at life differently and when you’ve accomplished it, you start to ask yourself what other things have I not done because I thought it was too hard or too big. If you just start it you can do it – the hardest thing is getting started and moving forward.
Shay’s life has been about proving people wrong and if someone said he couldn’t do something he spent every waking moment working to prove them wrong. He used the negative input as fuel to achieve what he wanted and key to this was surrounding himself with like-minded or positive people who helped him pick up on the mindset of what it takes to do amazing things.
Shay has also had a highly successful business life as well and feels that sport is a great predictor for commercial success as many of the same skills are required – time management, goal setting, delivering on what you said and accountability. Being competitive in sport forces you to make decisions. You know what your goals are and what you need to do to achieve them, whether it’s getting up at 4am to train before going to the office or sticking to a strict diet over a business lunch. Shay thinks that when he’s in peak training mode, he’s also firing on all cylinders at work.
Shay’s mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher,” but to be a “competitor” and has shared the trials and tribulations he faced while recovering from his burns and reclaiming his life as an athlete in his book, What the Fire Ignited: How Life’s Worst Helped Me Achieve My Best. Shay hopes his story will help anyone struggling with life to realise the greatest tragedies are often our greatest blessings if we have the faith to stay the course and that there is comfort in knowing others have been there and survived and thrived.
You can find out more about Shay at www.shayeskew.com
Shay’s book is available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/What-Fire-Ignited-Helped-Achieve/dp/1642250279