Dec. 02, 2009, 10:41 a.m. (ET)

The sport of bobsled began in the late 1880s, and early bobsleds looked like toboggans except with runners and a steering wheel. The sport was included in the first Winter Olympics in 1924, and four years later in St. Moritz, Switzerland, a U.S. sled piloted by William Fiske III won gold.

Billy Fiske's family moved to Paris in 1924, and the young Fiske honed his sliding skills on the famed Cresta Run, a ¾-mile-long natural ice chute in St. Moritz, where the Fiskes holidayed in winter. With reflexes of the fighter pilot he would become and no sense of fear, 16-year-old Fiske planned on competing in the 1928 Olympic Winter Games with his own sled, dubbed Satan. But he needed a team.

Three men - Nion Tucker, Geoffrey Mason, and Richard Parke - answered an ad in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. None had ever sat in a bobsled before. They joined Fiske and songwriter Clifford "Tippy" Grey, then 36 (and actually a British citizen). It was the only year that five men comprised the four-man event.

Fiske lay prone on the sled, hands on the steering wheel, wrote Phil Johnson in Sports Illustrated. The others climbed aboard "shingle fashion," Tucker first, then Mason, a college track and football athlete who cushioned the weight of Grey and brakeman Parke. The latter two had the job of bobbing (from which derives the name of the sport). Bobbing up and down at the precise time, these two men could make the sled go faster.

"We were the only sled with two men bobbing," Mason told Johnson when the bobsledder was 81-years-old. "All the others had just the brakeman bob, and then only on the straights. Parke bobbed all the way down, even in the curves."

The event was held to only two runs due to poor conditions, and Fiske's sled won, beating the second American sled driven by Jennison Heaton, 23, by a half-second. The previous day, Jennison had won gold in skeleton, a sled on which sliders ride solo and head first. Jennison finished one second ahead of brother John "Jack" Heaton, then 19 and, like Fiske, known as a King of the Cresta Run.

Skeleton wasn't held again until the 1948 Olympics, when Jack Heaton, then 39, won another silver. The sport was taken off the Olympic docket again until 2002.

At the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Fiske competed again, this time with 48-year-old Jay O'Brien - a stockbroker, New York City socialite, and the head of the U.S. Bobsled Committee - as brakeman and Grey in the third spot. The number-two man was Edward Eagan, the 1920 Olympic light-heavyweight boxing gold medalist.

In 1932, the bobsled teams did four runs (the last two the day after the Olympics ended, due to poor weather), and film of the heats shows Fiske's sled careening down the Mt. Van Hoevenberg bobrun much like the Grinch's loaded sleigh as it skidded down to Who-ville from the top of Mt. Crumpit.

Fiske's team won the first three heats. In the fourth, another U.S. sled, ridden by members of the Saranac Lake Red Devils and piloted by Henry Homburger, the engineer who designed the Mt. Van Hoevenberg bobrun, made up 2.31 seconds. But it was not enough to overtake Fiske's sled. Homburger's team, with Percy Bryant, F. Paul Stevens, and brakeman Edmund Horton, took the silver.

F. Paul wasn't the only Stevens competing at Lake Placid. Two of his three brothers, J. Hubert and Curtis, won the two-man bobsled, which made its Olympic debut in 1932. The Lake Placid residents heated their sled's runners with a blowtorch prior to their run - a then-accepted tactic. Although F. Paul and Curtis shared a sled, the brothers once promised their mother that they would never go down a bob-run all together, Curtis joked to a reporter. But the promise wasn't necessary "because we never get up at the same time anyway," he added.

Behind the Stevens' sled, Jack Heaton of skeleton fame won bronze in the two-man bobsled. His brakeman was stockbroker Bob Minton, and they finished almost 15 seconds behind the Stevens brothers (and over 12 seconds behind a Swiss team in second).

In 1939, Billy Fiske joined Britain's Royal Air Force and was killed in action on August 17, 1940 - the first American airman to die in World War II.


Sources: "'You Say You'd Like To Be An Olympic Bobsledder? Just Drop A Line To ...', by Phil Johnson, Sports Illustrated, Feb. 27, 1984; Olympic Museum in Lake Placid, N.Y.; "American Warrior: Billy Fiske" on the History Channel; and The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, Turin 2006 edition, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky.