At the age of eight, Shay Eskew was accidentally set afire by a neighbor’s child, suffering burns and burn relating scaring on 65% of his body. The road to recovery has been a long one, enduring over 35 surgeries the last 38 years, including multiple skins grafts and the amputation of his right ear. The doctors told Shay multiple times he was never going to play sports again or have a “normal life”. All he ever wanted was a chance to compete and be active like normal kids. 38 years later, it’s safe to say he’s done more than just be active. He has completed over 30 IRONMAN 70.3s, 4 IRONMANs, and over 70 triathlons in total. Shay not only completed every race he entered, but he competed at the highest level. He is a 4x TeamUSA athlete, 5x top 1% AWA ranked IRONMAN 70.3 athlete and competed in 12 World Championships, including IRONMAN World Championship in Kona in 2012 and most recently in the 2019 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in Nice, France. Shay learned early he would excel in sports that required all-out effort, last man standing mindset. In 2019, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (Medal of Courage) and won three boxing championships at the University of Tennessee (undefeated). Shay is the best-selling author of, “What the Fire Ignited: How Life’s Worst Helped Me Achieve My Best” and a motivational speaker. His biggest achievement is being happily married for 17 years and raising his five children under 14. His motto is “if you are good at something, you keep doing it”. Stingray were lucky enough to sit down with Shay and hear his inspiring story.
Shay’s parents always exercised extreme caution when he was growing up. He was never allowed to attend campfires, spend the night with friends, ride go-carts, attend firework shows or even jump on trampolines. They wanted to make sure he was always safe. Despite all their precautions, things dramatically changed on August 4, 1982. The day before, Shay was playing with a neighborhood friend and his bicycle was laid down in a yellow jackets nest. His mom helped him safely retrieve the bike. The following day his mother told him to warn the neighbor’s about the nest before anyone got injured. Shay grabbed his friend and knocked on the neighbor’s door. The parents were not home, but their 15-year old daughter was. After hearing about the nest, she asked the boys if they could help her get rid of it. Ironically Shay had never been around matches. The girl struck a match and tossed it close to the nest…and nothing happened. As they were standing about 15 ft away, watching the yellow jackets fly in and out of the nest, the girl threw a cup of gasoline from behind the boys without saying a word. Some of the gasoline splashed on the boy’s faces, necks, shoulders, and backs. When the gasoline made contact with the flickering match, everything went up in flames, including the boys. Shay’s first thoughts were, “these yellow jackets are going to get us”. He quickly ran to his yard and stopped, dropped and rolled to put his flames out while his friend stood there screaming in the same spot. Seeing his friend engulfed in flames, Shay ran back across the street, grabbed the garden hose and hosed down his friend. As he stood there alternating the hose over the top of their heads, he contemplated “what just happened”. After all of the flames were out, the smell of burnt hair and skin was overwhelming. Within seconds, their bodies were blackened and charred, their hair was falling out, their clothes were melted to their bodies and their skin was falling off them. To make matters worse, Shay had no insurance to cover his medical expenses.
News traveled fast and The Shriners’ Hospital for Children reached out and offered to treat Shay at no cost. After relocating him and his mother from Atlanta to Cincinnati, the Shriners provided extensive treatment for the next three months Shay (the hospital continued to treat him until he was 21). Days quickly turned into months as complications continued to arise. Injection is a major issue in burn treatment. He lost his first three skin graft to infection and the spread of gangrene eventually resulted in the amputation of his right ear. Initially the doctors believed they could save his ear. Every couple of days, the doctor would make his rounds and assess the ear for infection spread. He would then pull out a pair of surgical scissors and without saying a word, he would cut off a piece of the ear until it started to bleed. The site of blood was good because that meant the tissue was still alive. This process was repeated until it became evident nothing was left to salvage and the risk of infection spread was too great. Unlike today, in 1982, they didn’t put patients in medical induced coma or give morphine to ease the pain. The strongest pain medication Shay received through his journey was Extra Strength Tylenol.
Following the accident, Shay had to overcome many physical obstacles in addition to the emotional trauma. His right arm was melted to his body and he was not able to raise it above his head for three years. He had to learn how to write left-handed in the hospital just to finish third grade. Going against the doctor’s recommendations, Shay returned to school just two weeks after he was released from the hospital. Every day, his mom would pick him up at lunch and take him home to give him a bath and change all of his dressings.
During Shay’s three month stay in the hospital, all he could think about was playing baseball and football again with friends. For the first month of his hospitalization he was required to lie on his back. Suspended above him was a 3’x4’ piece of plexiglass with all the get-well wish cards from friends and family pressed down for him to read. In the middle of the cards was an 8”x11” autographed picture of Hershel Walker. Shay stared at this picture every waking minute and dreamed of one day running down the sidelines like Hershel. He made a pledge to himself and to God that if he could ever get out of the hospital, he’d never let his athletic talents go to waste.
Two months after being released from the hospital, true to his commitment, he signed up for baseball and his dad agreed to be the coach. Knowing he couldn’t raise his arm higher than his head, his dad put him at second base so he could toss the ball underhand to first base. In the event he hit the ball, he was usually thrown out running to first base as he could only advance at a fast-paced walk. An additional complication was not being allowed to slide because of the skin that was harvested from his legs for the extensive skin grafts. Despite being the worst player on the team, Shay for the first time felt like a normal kid again and loved every minute of it.
Five months later, Shay signed up for football and his doctors were terrified. Shay’s right shoulder, top of his back and arm, had no nerves. They were scared he could bleed to death or get hit so hard and he wouldn’t feel anything. Never one to hold his son’s dreams back, his dad inserted two additional inches of padding in his shoulder pads. He wasn’t the best on the field but played with the heart of a lion.
By sixth grade, despite all the scars, he was back to “normal” functioning. One day, he saw a sign for wrestling tryouts and got so excited because he thought he was going to be able to hit people with chairs and jump off the top ropes just like the WWF wrestlers on television. When he got to tryouts, he realized he was wrong, but for the first time in his life, he was able to go up against kids his size and he absolutely loved it! By the time he finished high school, Shay was a two-time state placer and was recognized through the Georgia Association and inducted into the National Hall of Fame under the Medal of Courage Designation.
Wrestling was where Shay discovered himself and gained confidence to truly push beyond the pain. He realized it does not matter what is on the outside but what is on the inside. He came to the conclusion that he is going to have to live with his scars for the rest of his life and that he had to just live with it. Shay believes we all have something about ourselves that they are not happy with… his just happened to be very visual. Once he embraced and loved himself, it wasn’t a big deal in his eyes. He believes we project our insecurities and make them a bigger deal by doing so. Once we accept ourselves for who we are, other people do not see that stuff. If it is a problem to use, we project it, and everyone gravitates to that weakness. On the flip side, if we project strength and say, “Look, I am fine that I have one ear and have scars on 65% of my body, I am okay with this. I don’t know what your problem is, but I am fine with this. If anything, you should be jealous of this”.
Sports were a big part of Shays healing. He believed if he could exceed as an athlete, people would have to look at him for who he is and not as the burn kid anymore. He knew that any opportunity that he had, he had to give it everything he had. Shay always took solace in knowing he wasn’t the best athlete, but he was a great competitor and he’d never lose from lack of effort . He truly believed the desire to win trumped talent if you committed to doing whatever it took… it just comes down to how bad someone wants it.
Shay continues to race IRONMAN 70.3 and competed in IRONMAN Patagonia 70.3 in March, successfully earning a slot to compete at the 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in Taupo, New Zealand. To make the most of the race cancellations during COVID and maintain fitness, Shay competed in 5 IRONMAN VR races (Virtual) and was successful in earning an IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship slot to compete in St. George, Utah in 2021. With the season now over, Shay can found at his kids soccer games on the weekends.
Find out more about Shay on his website https://shayeskew.com