Billy Fiske

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.

Billy Fiske in the 1928 Winter Olympics
Billy Fiske in the 1928 Winter Olympics

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.

She was still relatively unknown to the world. But at the 1927 figure skating world championships, the young Norwegian managed to be thick in the middle of controversy. Sonja Henie, at the age of 14, won her first world championships, the five judges deciding 3 votes to 2 that young Henie was the best.

Unfortunately, the optics were poor as three of the five judges were Norwegian, and their votes carried the day, as explained in The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics 2014 Edition. As a result of Henie’s victory, the International Skating Union came to their senses and created a rule that there can no longer be more than one judge from a single country at an international competition.

A year later, Henie showed she needed no partisan assistance at the 1928 Sankt Moritz Winter Olympics. Henie was not considered a favorite as the field was strong with 20 skaters, and yet she won handily, making her the youngest figure skater to win gold at the age of 15.

To get to that level, she clearly had to get started early. Her father, Wilhelm Henie (pronounced like “penny”), was a good athlete who competed as a speed skater and a cyclist, and so encouraged his children to take up sports. At the age of 4, according to this Vanity Fair article, Sonja Hennie was on skis. At the age of 5, she took up ballet, as well as skating, and much to her parents’ surprise, she won a children’s skating competition on borrowed clamped-on blades.

Once Sonja and her parents realized that she was a natural on ice, they placed her on a diet and a program. The diet was “raw eggs and rare steaks,” a lifetime delight, and the program was three hours practice in the AM and two hours in the PM, sans school. Thanks to the resources of her furrier father, figure skating and ballet coaches were at little Sonja’s service.

Sonja Henie was at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Games competing against 7 others, including world champion and eventual gold medalist Herma Planck-Szabo. Despite the small field, Henie finished dead last in eighth place. At the incredibly young age of 11, half the age of the gold and silver medalist and a third of the age of the bronze medalist, Henie was clearly a bit over her head. She was said to have repeatedly skated to the rinkside asking for her coach’s advice during her routine.

Sonja Henie_1924 Chamnoix Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 924 Chamonix Winter Olympics

But the transformation of Henie, from rough to polish, began in those four years between Chamonix in 1924 and St. Moritz in 1928. According to the Vanity Fair article, in addition to the considerable improvement in her technical skills, Henie re-created not only her own image, but the image of the figure skater as beauty and art personified.

Here was a huge visual shift—from masculine to feminine, from prose to poetry. Just as the ballerina’s pointe shoes were pink, suddenly the female ice skater’s boots were white, redolent of fairy and folk tales, of youthful purity and Nordic power. Sonja had single-handedly pulled figure skating into the realm of metaphor—and where there is metaphor, there can also be art. In “The Pavlova of the Ice,” film footage shot in 1928 (and available on YouTube), she is skating outdoors, her slow-motion leaps and spins set against snow-dusted mountains that are nothing short of Wagnerian.

The most significant part of this “visual shift” was parting ways with long skirts that all the women skaters wore to very short ones. Not only was Henie’s short skirt stunning and sensational to spectators used to more modest wear, it was revealing in ways that showed off the power and technical level of her spins and spirals, “and allowed her to perform tricks – the single axel, for instance – that had previously belonged to male skaters.”

Sonja Henie_1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics

At the age of 23, she had been to four Olympics, won three gold medals in three consecutive Olympiads, and 10 consecutive world championships in a row, and was arguably one of the most famous people in the world. And yet, her rising star was yet to hit its zenith.