Today, Peggy McKay Shinn ’85 is known for her achievements in journalism and her sports enthusiasm — she is a four-time Harold Hirsch award winner and contributor to publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Mountain Sports and Living and the Boston Globe, just to name a few.
During the early eighties, Shinn was like many of us — she enjoyed skiing and rowing crew, has fond memories of studying with her fellow geology majors and was adored by professors and friends alike, especially, to quote retired Professor of Geology Edward Belt, for “her sense of humor.” Her dedication to athletics stunned her roommate Tracy Johnson ’85, who recalls that she “could not believe [Shinn] was always up for” her early morning practices. This dedication continues to stun many of her peers today. There was always some part of Shinn that wanted to be a journalist because she always loved writing, but back then, Shinn was simply an Amherst College student and still a bit unsure of what lay in her future.
A New Kind of Athlete
Shinn’s interest in sports led her to the College’s student newspaper, The Amherst Student.
“I technically wasn’t on the newspaper staff,” Shinn explained. “I just covered ski races, so I was kind of freelancing for the paper.”
Shinn’s older sister and current bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal in Atlanta, Betsy McKay ’83, was on the paper as well. Deciding not to follow in her sister’s shadow, Shinn focused on competing in college sports, majoring in geology instead of English and discovering her own path.
After graduation, Shinn headed west, where she took up bicycle racing and mountain biking. Shinn described her twenties as her “floundering” and “dabbling in grad school.” She headed to Colorado, deciding that it might be nice to teach geology, and began studying for a Masters of Arts in Teaching at Colorado College. While in Colorado, Shinn also took up powder skiing and began competing (and winning) in grueling bicycle races like the Leadville 100. Extremely modest, Shinn would simply say she likes bicycling, especially mountain biking, and leave it at that.
In 1990, Shinn received her Masters before pursuing another Masters of Science in Environmental Studies at the Colorado School of Mines after realizing she “didn’t like teaching adolescents.” While in grad school, Shinn held various jobs, including waitressing and tutoring. Upon graduation in 1993, Shinn went to Vermont, her home state, and finally began writing.
Revamping Team USA
Back in Vermont, Shinn decided to cover skiing events for the local newspaper. The exposure gave rise to positions covering for local magazines and much more.
“It was a case of networking,” Shinn recalled. “One of the editors I worked for recommended me to another who was looking for freelance journalists for a new project.”
The new project, as it turned out, was innovating the United States’ Olympic Committee’s (USOC) website, TeamUSA.org. In 2008, Shinn and fellow freelancer, Aimee Berg, were asked to write more than just short blurbs and statistics about the competing athletes — they were assigned “actual journalistic profiles,” according to Shinn. Berg recounts that the two “hit it off right away.” Even though they filed their articles from separate locations, they covered the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Olympics together and remain online pen pals five years later. Although Shinn could not cover the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, she will cover the 2014 Sochi Olympics, making the event the third Olympic games she has covered during her journalism career.
The position opened up a wide array of opportunities for Shinn, leading her to cover not only sporting events for TeamUSA.org, but also to contribute to major ski magazines, such as Ski and Skiing, and even to become a contributing editor for Ski Racing Magazine for many years. The Harold Hirsch award, an annual award presented by the North American Snowsports Journalism Association, has been received by Shinn a total of four times for her phenomenal ski writing.
Freedom of Freelance
In addition to her many contributions to specialized sports publications, Shinn also pitches ideas to other publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, and completes feature pieces on a monthly basis for TeamUSA.org. Shinn describes herself as a freelance writer, which means she works for herself. She admits that although she enjoys the flexibility and being home after her daughter’s school day is complete, she is not always so keen on the life of a freelance writer. Shinn has to pitch her stories to editors, sometimes ones she is not familiar with, since she is not tied to a staff position at a paper.
“It feels like being the ugly girl asking the football player to the prom,” Shinn jokingly explained.
Since the journalism industry is becoming more and more competitive, freelancing is a difficult career in which to make a living. The decrease in paper publications and increase in online materials has given consumers more access to such resources, but has also decreased the number of employees needed and the amount that can be paid as salary.
“I could write one article for an online company and they would offer me $50, which is no way to support yourself,” Shinn said. “Honestly, I could not be a freelance writer without the support of my husband.”
Shinn’s husband, Andrew Shinn, is a fellow Amherst College graduate of the class of 1985.
Eye of the Storm
Finances aside, being a freelance writer has still given Shinn more time to delve into side-projects. One such project was the publication of the Hurricane Irene-based book Deluge: Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont. The book focuses on the path of the 2011 Hurricane Irene and the aftermath of its unexpected destruction across little towns in Vermont.
Shinn’s sister, Betsy McKay, needed reporters to cover the event, since McKay was responsible for the North Carolina coast coverage of the storm. Because Irene’s path was not predicted to travel so far north, and because the wreckage had blocked many of Vermont’s roads, there was no way someone from the outside could get in. Enter Peggy Shinn, whose permanent residence is in Vermont with her husband and daughter. She was the first to inform her sister of the severity of the damage by posting photos to Facebook.
“Before she went on Facebook, I know she thought I must have been exaggerating,” Shinn said, laughing.
Since Shinn was close enough to the action, she offered to cover the event. She hopped onto her mountain bike to easily navigate through the wreckage on the roads. Though the initial coverage for the WSJ was complete, Shinn looked at the damage as more than a single newspaper piece. Shinn decided that “the government could use much more than an article — this warrants a book.”
When asked if the process of writing the book was significantly more difficult than writing articles, Shinn replied that writing the book was like writing “a series of articles,” and expressed gratitude for her editor’s aid.
“I was used to telling stories about athletes that were inspiring, so many of the stories [in Deluge] were inspiring but also very sad,” Shinn remarked. “These people lost so much. I felt very self-conscious about taking their time.”
Though the book, dedicated to Shinn’s parents, was just recently released this past August, it is already receiving rave reviews. Sue Mintor, Vermont’s Irene Recovery Officer praises Deluge, saying:
“Peggy Shinn presents a riveting account of Tropical Storm Irene’s devastating toll on Vermont and the heroic response of its people. By weaving together vignettes of the disaster in communities across the state, she deftly portrays the Irene story: the pain of loss; the strength of community; and the fierce determination to rebuild. Shinn’s telling of the tragic yet transformational story of Vermont’s road to recovery presents a valuable lesson in what can happen when a fractured state becomes united by a common purpose.”
Shinn has also received glowing reviews from The Burlington Press, San Jose Mercury News and Boston’s online magazine The Arts Fuse.
The risks Shinn took in covering the story and in many of her athletic pursuits truly demonstrate her bravery.
As her former Amherst classmate, Mark Boryta ’85, remarked about Shinn, “She will go anywhere and do anything for an experience, despite the fact it may terrify her.”
The rewards clearly outweigh the process.
In the midst of monthly articles, book signings and anticipating the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Shinn somehow finds time to relax. However, her version of relaxation is quite different from many of ours. Although she enjoys spending time with her husband and attending her daughter’s soccer games, she also enjoys continuing to learn yoga, walking and “petting my cat,” as she jokes. “I rarely have free time.”
It’s hard to imagine how Shinn can stay so active, writing and mountain biking, without burning herself out, but if her impressive list of contributions to journalism is any indication, it seems to work for her.