Among the 1,354 people who competed in last Saturday’s Chilmark Road Race, there was at least one former Olympic hopeful. Eleanor Shabica of Oak Bluffs and Charleston, South Carolina, was once invited to join the U.S. Olympic swim team. However, the year was 1936 and the host country was Nazi Germany. Ms. Shabica’s father, no fan of Hitler, forbade her to go. In 1930, as a high school junior, she bested the 1928 women’s gold medalist at a swim meet at Brown University.
This past weekend, Ms. Shabica, 98, may not have won any awards, but she did win the hearts of the crowd as she crossed the finish line to deafening cheers, pushed in her wheelchair by her son Carl. And her glory days as an athlete are not so far behind her. At the age of 82, Ms. Shabica took first place in her age group (70-99) at the 1996 road race.
Most summer days, Ms. Shabica can be seen sitting on her porch in the Campground in Oak Bluffs, greeting just about every visitor who walks by. She’s a petite woman with sparkling eyes and an engaging manner. At one time, according to her son Charles, she had a habit of inviting the curious into the small gingerbread cottage to explore unescorted.
The summer home at 75 Trinity Circle has been in the family since 1918, when it was purchased by Ms. Shabica’s father, Arthur Wright, who worked in a lace mill in Pawtucket, R.I. Prior to that time, the family had been regular summer visitors. Ms. Shabica first came to the Vineyard when she was two years old in 1916. She worked for many years at the Magnolia restaurant, at the current site of Giordano’s in downtown Oak Bluffs, and she also taught swimming. She fondly recalls her days as a young woman when she was friends with many of her Campground neighbors, including the Adams sisters — celebrated “little people”who performed in the circus in the 1800s. Ms. Shabica recalls that the sisters were always “dressed to the nines.”
Ms. Shabica, née Wright, met her husband, Anthony Charles Shabica, on a blind date arranged by her sister. Mr. Shabica, like his wife, was an athlete. He competed on the Brown University lacrosse team and was a Golden Gloves boxing champion. The couple had three sons. The boys grew up in Livingston, N.J., where Mr. Shabica was employed by the Merck pharmaceutical company. He assisted in the early efforts in synthesizing penicillin for the war effort, according to Charles Shabica. “He and Eleanor collected the cultures sent from Great Britain on a WWII submarine.”
The boys recall idyllic summers spent on the Vineyard. “It was safe then,” says Ms. Shabica. One of her friends was Emily Post, who owned a summer home in Edgartown from the late 1920s through the 1940s. Charles recalls being terrified as a young boy when he and his brothers were taken to visit the grand dame of etiquette. Dressed in matching sports jackets hand sewn by their mother, the three little boys were escorted into the dining room where Ms. Post showed them a little nook hidden behind a curtain. “There was a little bunk bed, a light and some books,” says Charles, “She told us, ‘If one of my guests feels a little faint, they can go in there.’” The boys were won over. They still treasure a letter from Ms. Post to their mother — one of a number of mementos of Ms. Shabica’s rich and interesting life that has been preserved at the Oak Bluffs family home.
Among others are a variety of faded and decaying ribbons from long forgotten competitions and two brass trophies so worn by age that the engraving has rubbed off, leaving no trace of their significance. However, Ms. Shabica’s history as a runner, swimmer, and skiier (she only quit that sport when she broke a leg at age 82) is still very vivid in her memory, and recounted with obvious pride by her sons. She still swims in the ocean whenever she gets the chance.
The Chilmark Road Race has long been a summer tradition for the Shabicas. “We’ve always done a family run,” says Charles. “There were times when there were literally an army of us.” Ms. Shabica herself participated numerous times since the race began in 1978 until shortly after she won in 1996. Stephen Cofer-Shabica, a coastal scientist who lives in Charleston, is the most serious runner among the sons. This year he couldn’t make it to the Vineyard for the race and Charles ran under his name. “This is the first year that Stephen has come in close to last,” jokes Charles. This year, Charles and Carl took turns pushing Ms. Shabica, who was beaming the entire time.
Charles, like Stephen, followed in his father’s footsteps as a scientist. He formerly worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and now lives Chicago where he works as a coastal scientist and coastal engineer. The other son, Carl is an attorney, living in Charlotte, N.C. All three sons spend time, along with their families, at the Campground cottage in the summer.
“Our dad was a scientist, but it was our mom who got us excited about exploring,” says Charles. “My dad was very serious. Responsibility, reliability, integrity were everything for him. Our mother was a remarkable woman. Her idea of fun was going somewhere and just looking. Whether it was a dead crab or beach glass or searching for a WWII plane rumored to be in the woods in New Jersey, she loved to explore.”
Judging by the enthusiasm she exhibited as she participated in last weekend’s race, Ms. Shabica, at almost 100 years of age, still loves an adventure. Will she join the road race pack next year? “Absolutely,” says Ms. Shabica with a huge smile on her face.