Billy Fiske was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but his taste for Olympic medals was all gold.
Born in 1911 in New York, son of a wealthy banker, young Billy went to school first in Chicago, and then in France. It was in Europe where the teenager discovered speed on ice – the Cresta Run in St. Moritz, Switzerland – where he would go screaming down the natural ice skeleton racing toboggan track for fun.
When US officials were looking to scrounge up people who could man a bobsleigh team for the 1928 St Moritz Winter Olympiad, the young American seemed like an obviously convenient choice for what would become a somewhat ragtag 5-member bobsleigh team, according to this Guardian article. In fact, three other members were selected because they answered an ad in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune. Another member of the team was an entertainer named Clifford Grey, whose wealth allowed him to dabble in musical comedy and vaudeville.
And according to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, none of the Team USA bobsleigh team, with the exception of Fiske, had ever even laid eyes on a bobsleigh before. And yet, with Fiske at the front, Team USA had the fastest time. Granted, temperatures were 20 degrees celsius at the time of the competition, so the icy course was on the whole, slushy at best. Despite the conditions, Fiske steered the team to a time of 3 minutes and 20.5 seconds, about half a second ahead of another USA bobsleigh.
At the age of 16, Fiske was the youngest-ever gold medalist in a winter sport, a record held until 1992.
Four years later, when the Winter Games were held in his home state of New York, Fiske won his second gold at the Lake Placid Games. This time, according to an AP story from February 10, 1932, the Americans took the bobsleigh competition seriously, building “the finest, toughest, most daring run in the world down a barren mountainside” in Lake Placid, where “the boys learned to take its tremendous curves at 70 miles an hour without teeing off the top.” As a still-young 20-year Olympic sensation, Fiske headed a team that made Team USA the best bobsleighers in the world.
Again, the conditions were poor for the Olympic bobsleighers, many of whom complained about the slow times. According to an AP report from February 15, 1932, the organizers were worried that the state-of-art course, reputed to be the fastest in the world, was purposely doctored to slow it down. The icy surface was pared away and several of inches of snow was tossed onto the course. “….the blinding speed of the course was taken out by discontinuing the icy base, and making it a snow course instead of a glassy one. Now it matches the mush slower European runs.”
Fiske’s four-man team made it won the Lake Placid course routinely around 2 minutes across their four runs, which was apparently some 20 seconds slower than average speeds on the icy course. Still, no matter how fast or slow the course, the objective of the race is to be the faster overall. In the three heats, Fiske led his team to the fastest time in three of the four runs, thus winning Team USA gold in the four-man bobsleigh.
For Fiske, it was gold medal number 2. And yet, he had greater heights to climb still.
The Short But Incredible Life of Billy Fiske Part 2: Olympian Joins the British Royal Air Force and is One the First American to Die in WWII
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