Billy Fiske in RAF uniform

He was 16, and he was an Olympic gold medalist. At the age of 20, he won his second gold medal. At the age of 24, Billy Fiske had an opportunity to head up another US bobsleigh team, this time at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.

Fiske turned down a possible third gold medal, and he never said why. But according to The Guardian, his friend, Irving Jaffee (a two time gold medalist in speed skating at the1932 Lake Placid Games), believed it was because “Fiske objected to the treatment of Jews, like Jaffee himself, in Nazi Germany.”

As a teenager, Fiske went to Trinity College in London, England, to study economics and history, as well as drive his Bentley down the English country roads as fast as he could. In 1938, Fiske moved back to England, where he made friends with members of the British air force at the White’s Club in London, and married an English girl named Rose Bingham. He returned to New York. But when Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, Fiske felt he had to return to England.

Fiske had to deceive in order to make it to England because American passports did not allow citizens to engage in foreign militaries, and it was Fiske’s aim to join his friends from the White’s Club. Pretending to be Canadian, Fiske returned to London where he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF). According to HistoryNet, “Fiske duly pledged his life and loyalty to the king, George VI, and was formally admitted into the RAF. In his diary, a joyous Fiske wrote, “I believe I can lay claim to being the first U. S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.”

In fact he was the first. He was also one of the first Americans to perish in World War II.

Billy Fiske fifth left
Billy Fiske fifth from the left

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940 when Luftwaffe arrived in London in full daylight to bomb the British capital. As a newly trained pilot in the 601 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron at Tangmere, “there was some apprehension in 601 about ‘the untried American adventurer,” as quoted in HistoryNet. Ten days later, the rookie fighter pilot was in the air in a 601 plane to make patrols, apparently learning quickly how to maneuver the plane effectively.

Three weeks later, Fiske, on August 16, 1940, Fiske was trying to get his plane back to the base after an attack by Luftwaffe. Shot up and badly damaged, Fiske glided his Hurricane fighter plane back to the airfield, hitting the ground hard and exploding into fire. Dragged out of his plane, Fiske suffered severe burns and was rushed to a hospital. But the shock from the burns was too great, and the Olympian and American RAF fighter pilot, Billy Fiske, died the next day at the age of 29.

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.