To describe any gold medal-winning team as exceptional is probably justified, but perhaps this particular group deserve the epithet more than most.
Tippy Grey won two gold medals in the Winter Olympics, the first in 1928 at St Moritz in Switzerland, when the USA five-man bob team took first place.1 He acquired a second in 1932 when his four-man bob team won at Lake Placid, in atrocious weather conditions. He was 45 years old. Tippy Grey was not, however, all he seemed to be: primarily, he was not American, he was British, and he was already better-known by another name.
Clifford Grey was the world-famous lyricist who wrote songs like 'If You Were The Only Girl In The World' and 'Spread A Little Happiness', One of his songs, 'What A Duke Should Be' was used in the 2001 film Gosford Park. He was an asthmatic who, during lengthy trips to America, writing shows for Broadway, reinvented himself as a sporting hero, and was known in sporting circles as Tippy.
Quite why he did this is unknown, though it certainly didn't seem to be for fame and glory - the first his children knew about his sporting prowess was after his death. He died in 1941 during a German bombing raid on Ipswich, and the medals were among his effects. Even Clifford Grey was a pseudonym though; he was born Percival Davis, the only son of an Edgbaston whip-maker,2 and was educated at King Edward VI school, Birmingham.
Jay O'Brien was in the 1928 Olympics too, in the five-man 'B' team, which took silver, half a second behind Grey's team. In 1932, however, they sat together in the four-man bob3 and took gold. In doing so, O'Brien set a record which stood until 2006, as the oldest man to win an Olympic gold medal, at 48 years of age.4 Alas, that record was taken at the Italian Olympics by Russ Howard, a 50-year-old Canadian curler.
Eddie Eagan was 31 years old in 1928 when he crewed the five-man bob to gold, and four years later he was a last-minute addition to the four-man team. He was born in Denver, Colarado, and his father died when he was just one year old. Despite being raised in poverty he went on to graduate in law from Yale and Harvard, and to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. In 1920 he entered the Olympics as a light-heavyweight in the USA boxing team. He won gold, and remains as the only man to win gold in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.5 He went on to serve as a Colonel in WWII. He was portrayed by actor Bill Hanrahan in the 1980 Martin Scorsese film, Raging Bull, in which he appears peripherally.
The final member of this astonishing quartet was William Meade Lindsley Fiske.6 Aged 16, he steered the five-man bob to gold in 1928, and repeated the feat four years later, when he was also his country's flag-bearer. In 1936, he was again invited to join the team, but declined, because the Olympics were to take place in Germany, and he would have to salute Adolf Hitler. However Fiske's immortality was not obtained on the sporting field. In 1939, by pretending to be a Canadian citizen, Billy Fiske enrolled in the RAF, becoming the first US citizen to join the RAF after the outbreak of hostilities. On 16 August, 1940 his Hurricane returned from a mission and was seen to 'glide over the boundary and land on its belly.' He was pulled from the cockpit with severe burns, and died two days later from shock at the Royal West Sussex Hospital, thus becoming the first American citizen to lay down his life in combat in World War II. He is buried at Boxgrove churchyard, Sussex, but his memorial plaque is in St Paul's Cathedral, and was unveiled on 4 July, 1941.7 Its text reads:
PILOT OFFICER WILLIAM MEADE LINDSLEY FISKE III ROYAL AIRFORCE AN AMERICAN CITIZEN WHO DIED THAT ENGLAND MIGHT LIVE 18 AUGUST 1940