As a pusher in the four-man bobsleigh team spearheaded by pilot Billy Fiske, Edward Eagan won the gold medal with the USA I team in the final event of the Lake Placid 1932 Winter Games. Twelve years earlier, as a boxer, he had been crowned Olympic champion in the light heavyweight competition at Antwerp 1920. Today marks the anniversary of one man’s extraordinary achievement.
A soldier in the First World War; a brilliant student who studied at Yale, Harvard and Oxford and qualified as a lawyer; an Olympic boxer who won the light heavyweight competition in Antwerp in 1920; and the only athlete in history to secure a gold medal at both the Summer and Winter Games, thanks to his victory with the four-man bobsleigh team at Lake Placid 1932… Edward “Eddie” Eagan had the lot.
After turning 30, Eagan accepted an invitation from his friend Jay O’Brien, the head of the USA’s Olympic Bobsleigh Committee, who was looking for someone strong to join the team led by Billy Fiske, the winner of the gold medal in the four-man event in St Moritz in 1928. “Guess what? I’m on the United States bobsled team,” Eagan told his wife before heading off to Lake Placid to compete in the Olympic tournament on 14 and 15 February 1932, without ever having even sat in a bobsleigh before.
The bobsleigh competition on the Mt Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run – which was built specially for the Lake Placid Games and still exists today, having been renovated several times – was supposed to have taken place on 11 and 12 February. But the mild weather conditions put paid to that, causing the ice to thaw and meaning that all four runs had to be postponed. The Opening Ceremony of the III Olympic Winter Games was held on 13 February, and the bobsledders were not able to take to the ice until the following day, Sunday 14 February.
“That run will always be vivid in my memory”
That day, around 20,000 spectators came to watch the event. The firm favourite was none other than the pilot of the USA II team, Henry Homburger, who had helped to design the track, and whose Saranac Red Devils team, composed of the Stevens brothers, Hubert and Chris, had won the two-man competition. Another Stevens brother, Francis, was the pusher for the Homburger-led four-man bob crew, which also included Percy Bryant and Edmund Horton.
But Billy Fiske, who had won his first Olympic title aged 16 at St Moritz 1928 – the youngest pilot to win bobsleigh gold in the history of the Games – was an exceptional bobsledder. On 14 February 1932, pushed by Eagan, O’Brien and Clifford Gray, Fiske was dominant on the first two runs. All four runs had originally been scheduled to take place on the same day, but the poor condition of the track led to protests from the athletes, and the final two runs were postponed until the next day.
On 15 February, Fiske and his team-mates once again outclassed their rivals on the third run, extending their lead over Homburger’s crew to four seconds. Although Homburger’s team set a track record in the final run, it was a case of too little, too late: USA I took gold with an overall time of 7:53.68, finishing ahead of USA II (7:55.70) and Germany I (8:00.04). “That run will always be vivid in my memory,” said Eagan. “It took only about two minutes to make, but to me it seemed like an eon. I remember the snow-covered ground flashing by like a motion picture out of focus. Speeding only a few inches from the ground without any sense of security, I hung on to the straps. My hands seemed to be slipping, but still I clung on.”
Olympic boxing champion, undefeated in his category
Edward Eagan was born on 26 April 1897 in Denver, Colorado. His father, a railway worker, died in a work-related accident when Eddie was a baby. Eagan was a brilliant law student, studying at Yale, Harvard and then Oxford, after receiving a Rhodes Scholarship, an international postgraduate award that enables select students to study at the prestigious British university. Eagan went on to serve in the US Army as an artillery lieutenant in France during the First World War. Alongside his studies, he was also a talented and successful boxer, becoming captain of the Yale university team and securing a place at the Antwerp Olympic Games.
In August 1920, competing in the main hall at Antwerp’s Zoological Gardens, Eagan saw off South Africa’s Thomas Holdstock in the quarter-finals, Great Britain’s Harold Frank in the semi-finals and then Norway’s Sverre Sorsdal to become Olympic champion in the light heavyweight class. On his return from the Games, he continued his studies at Harvard before taking up his scholarship at Oxford. After becoming the first-ever American to win a British amateur boxing title, he embarked on a two-year world tour, taking on the best amateur boxer in each country he visited and winning every single bout.
Eagan took part in the heavyweight category at the Paris 1924 Games, but lost in the first round against Great Britain’s Arthur Clifton. He continued to box and worked as a lawyer, before that invitation from O’Brien: go to the Winter Games, push a sled and hurtle down an icy track at breakneck speed. “I felt the change would do me good,” remarked Eagan. A second Olympic title was waiting for him at the end of it all.
Eagan’s feat in winning medals at both the Olympic Summer and Winter Games has since been matched by Jacob Tullin Thams (in ski jumping and sailing), Christa Luding-Rothenburger (speed skating and track cycling), Clara Hughes (speed skating and road cycling) and Lauryn Williams (athletics and bobsleigh). He is, however, the only athlete to have won gold in his two events.
Following his Olympic exploits, Eagan resumed his career as a lawyer in New York and served as a lieutenant colonel in the US Army in World War Two. He died, aged 69, of a heart attack on 14 June 1967. In 1983 he joined the likes of Jesse Owens and Mark Spitz as an inaugural inductee of the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.