Geffrey T. Mason

Inducted: 2004
Born: 1903
Died: 1987

Until 1998, Geoffrey Mason, a Philadelphia native but a long-time Rhode Island resident, was the state’s only Winter Olympic gold medalist. He won a gold medal as a member of the 5-member bobsledding team at the 1928 Winter Olympics held at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Most Olympic champions are the products of years of training and sacrifice. That was certainly not the case for Mason. Nineteen days after he first saw a bobsled, Mason won a gold medal. He was a track and football athlete at Bowdoin College in the early 1920s. Mason went to Europe for postgraduate study, and in 1927, he was living in Freiburg, Germany, with his wife, Sarah, and two children. He read an article in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune that the U.S. was organizing a bobsled team for the 1928 Winter Olympics and was looking for volunteers. Mason had never even seen a bobsled when he went out for the team. He applied with a letter and was accepted immediately- no tests, training, or trials – he was a mail-order Olympian! 

Mason’s lack of knowledge about the sport wasn’t surprising. In the U.S., sleds were used for kids to take out on hills in the winter. Competitive sledding was limited to the alpine spas of Europe, which began in the late 19th century as an exercise among the wealthy. It started in Switzerland in 1888 when Wilson Smith, a wealthy Englishman, connected two sleighs with a board and slid downhill one mile from St. Moritz to Celerina. The crude vehicle was improved, and in 1926, the International Olympic Committee added the bobsledding event to the Winter Olympics.     

After traveling all day by train from Freiburg, Mason arrived in St. Moritz on Feb. 1, 1928, and walked to the Palace Hotel, where the U.S. team was staying. There was no room for him, so he was sent to the Grand Hotel, where he stayed with the Canadian hockey team. He began his bobsledding career practicing with the Polish National team since the Americans were still trying to fill the roster and were not practicing then. Mason credits the Polish team for teaching him how to ride the sleigh, and he had three successful runs that first day. He joined the U.S. team on Feb. 3 and met the driver, a precocious 16-year-old named Billy Fiske. In 1940, Fiske became one of the first Americans to die in WWII when his RAF plane crashed on landing. The man assigned to the No. 2 position was Nion Tocker, a California journalist who, like Mason, was a walk-on. Mason, who had the broadest athletic background of the entire team, was put in the No. 3 position. In No. 4 was songwriter Clifford Grey, best known for composing “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.” The brakeman was Richard Parke, a St. Moritz racing scene veteran.  

The sled belonged to Fiske. It was called Satan, and each of the five riders wore a single letter on the back of his yellow turtleneck racing sweater, spelling out the name of the sled. Only when the games began did team members don Olympic-issue outfits. The sled was also repainted and rechristened USA II. Pre-games training consisted of races against the other Olympic sleds. The Fiske team and the second American entry featured John and Jennison Heaton, did well in the events, and were the favorites of trackside betters. The two American teams were consistently among the top three finishers in the field of 25 sleds from 15 countries. 

At No. 3, Mason cushioned the weight of the two men in the back, who bobbled while the sled was on the course. Bobbing was a maneuver designed to increase speed. Done correctly, it could make a sled jump forward. On Mason’s sled, the men would lie almost prone until given the order to bob up by the brakeman. The Games opened on Feb. 11, 1928, with 495 athletes assembled to compete. The weather turned warm, and hockey ice turned to slush. “We came to St. Moritz to play hockey, not water polo,” a Canadian hockey player said. “The Swiss ice, like that country’s cheese, has holes in it,” he added. The temperature dropped late in the week, and the bobsled event was salvaged. Even then, things came out differently than planned. It rained on the first day of the bobsled competition, and racing was canceled. A decision was made to determine the gold medal winner based on two runs instead of four. The Fiske team finished first, and the other American team finished second.

There was no victory stand and no draping of medals around the visitor’s necks. “We just stood around and mingled as the flags were raised,” Mason recalled. “My medal was handed to me in a box by a bobsled official.” The gold medal wasn’t the only trophy Mason collected that day. He returned to the hotel with the American flag raised for the bobsled team tucked under his sweater.

Mason returned to the U.S., where he became a teacher in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t invited to participate in the 1932 Olympics, which had abandoned the five-person bobsled competition in favor of a four-person event. After a short teaching career, Mason became the personnel manager for the Newman Crosby Steel Company of Pawtucket. He was active in the Bowdoin Alumni Association as a volunteer for the Rhode Island Institute for the Blind. Mason often reflected on the luck that brought him to St. Moritz in 1928. “So many people have wanted to participate in the Olympics and have practiced and worked for it but couldn’t make the team or win a medal. In many ways, my success was embarrassing. I was only there for three weeks, but my experience and the medal have given me tremendous pride and happiness,” he said.

Geoffrey Mason died at his home in Providence on Jan. 7, 1987. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2004.

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