"I always wanted to spend time traveling in Europe," Shea said. "It was my graduation gift."
It's safe to say that Shea earned the vacation gift, because there hasn't been an athlete quite like him in Secaucus High School history.
Shea graduated as the valedictorian at Secaucus High in June, with an impeccable 4.56 grade point average out of a possible 4.0 and a Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 2240 out of a possible 2400.
Shea wasn't the first athlete to earn honors as the top student in the graduating class at Secaucus. In fact, Adam Mustafa, who was a fine football player and track athlete at the school, graduated atop the Class of 2007.
"Our track program has been blessed with a lot of top 10 students," said Stan Fryczynski, the long-time Secaucus High track and field coach and athletic director. "Our sport does tend to draw that kind of top student-athlete. But in my mind, Ryan is the crème de la crème. He was quite mature to balance everything in the classroom and in athletics and be good in everything. The fact that he's graduated tops in everything truly makes him very special. Athletes like Ryan are very special. Student-athletes like Ryan are extremely special. He handled the full course load of honors classes, including our science academy, which is extremely demanding.
Added Fryczynski, "I know for a fact that he would stay up late into the night with his studies. He also was involved in a lot of activities. I really don't know if there are many students like him."
Shea didn't even go out for track and field until he was a sophomore at Secaucus.
"I played soccer my freshman year," Shea said. "I thought I was going to become a soccer player."
But then, Shea's father, Edward, who was a track standout during his days in high school in New York, suggested that Ryan give cross country a try.
"He knew that I had a future in running," Shea said. "He said that I had perfect form. I was actually surprised, because I never ran before. I did much better than I expected. I never thought I could become as good as I did."
Shea eventually became a three-time participant in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I sectionals, leading the Patriots to a top-five team finish all three years. As a senior, Shea was the BCSL National individual champion in cross country and led the Patriots to the league title.
Shea also competed in indoor and outdoor track. As a senior in outdoor, Shea finished fourth in the county in the 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs and earned NJSIAA state sectional medals in both events.
Shea said that his dedication to the sport of track and field helped him become a more determined and focused student.
"I think running helped me a lot with my studies," Shea said. "Running gave me a mental break, a release. I was able to clear my mind and then return to completing my assignments for my classes. I truly think one helped the other. It provided a balance in my life."
Fryczynski also knew how important Shea's classroom workload was to him.
"Coach told me that if I ever needed to take a day off to get my schoolwork done, if things got too demanding, that I could," Shea said. "He was very supportive."
Shea didn't realize he was headed toward becoming the class valedictorian until he began his senior year.
"Then, the pressure was on," Shea said. "I still wanted to keep my grades up."
That's because there was still an ultimate goal at hand - getting into the school of his choice, in this case, Princeton University, to study mechanical engineering.
"I really wanted to get into Princeton," Shea said. "That was my first choice."
So when Shea received notification that he was indeed accepted to Princeton, his reaction was typical.
"I couldn't contain myself," Shea said. "It was beyond ecstatic. I couldn't believe it. I was really concerned about the admission process; that I might not get in."
But that wasn't the case. Shea now awaits freshman orientation in a few weeks, which will begin with an outdoor action program, complete with six days of camping and hiking. Not a bad way to get to know future classmates.
Needless to say, Ryan Shea leaves Secaucus High School with a legacy of greatness, a complete package of academics and athletics.
"I'm extremely proud," Shea said. "I think it's very important for students to participate in some sort of activity, some sort of varsity sport. I never wanted to just concentrate on academics. I'm glad I chose track. I think I did help to break the stereotype of the 'dumb jock.' I think I've proven that someone can be both a good athlete and an outstanding student. I did my best. I'm really proud of what I've done. I have no regrets."
Nor should Shea.
"He's the most respectful and polite kid I've ever coached," Fryczynski said. "That's what makes him even more unique. His personality and demeanor can take him a long way. I'm definitely going to use him as an example. Now that he's graduated and moving on, I'm going to use Ryan both to students and to parents that it can be done, that a student can handle both. It's just a matter of time management. That's what I'm going to take from Ryan. He's really a special kid."
Shea doesn't mind being used as a guiding light for others.
"I really think anyone can achieve the things I have done, as long as they put their mind to it," Shea said. "I would like it if other students used me to inspire them. That would be great."
Just like the legacy that Ryan Shea leaves at Secaucus High School, one of greatness, both on the track and in the classroom, the quintessential student-athlete. - Jim Hague