An unlikely champion

A 5-man team in action during the "Bobsleigh" event at the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. A 5-man team in action during the "Bobsleigh" event at the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

A 5-man team in action during the "Bobsleigh" event at the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

A 5-man team in action during the “Bobsleigh” event at the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Nearly a century ago, one Rhode Islander’s Olympic dreams came true —just for the asking.
Rhode Island doesn’t produce a lot of winter Olympians. We are hours from mountains of any substance, and this winter excepted, we don’t get much snow. A quick scan of Olympians on the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame website reveals a handful of hockey players, including Sara DaCosta, the goalie for the women’s ice hockey team that took home gold in Nagano in 1998.

In fact, before DaCosta, the only other Rhode Islander to win gold in a winter games did it in 1928 at St. Moritz, in the (now-defunct) 5-man “bobsleigh” event.

Geoffrey Mason, who died in Rumford in 1987 at the age of 84, was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Bowdoin College, where he excelled in several sports. Bobsleigh was not one of them. In fact, he rode one for the first time just 19 days before his medal-winning run.

Mason’s journey to Olympic glory was detailed in an interview with “Sports Illustrated” writer Phil Johnson, published in February of 1984.

Mason tells Johnson how, while living in Germany in 1927 with his wife and two children, he read a newspaper article about the U.S. entry into the new Olympic event. According to Johnson’s article, Mason said “I’d never thought about being on an Olympic team, but when I saw this I figured I had nothing to lose, so why not try.”

He wrote to the organizers, who invited him to San Moritz. Unbeknownst to Mason, the team he was about to join was one of the favorites for gold. For the next two weeks Mason would train with his team, riding the bobsleigh which would be christened USA II.

Unlike the high-tech sleds modern bobsledders tuck into, the bobsleigh of 1928 looked much like an extra-long child’s sled. The race would begin with the driver in position, and the other four members of the team would stack themselves on top, “shingle-style.” The brakeman, and in the case of Mason’s team the #4 man as well, would “bob” on command, adding thrust for the duration of the ride.

At St. Moritz, bad weather would ultimately shorten the event to two races instead of four, with Mason’s team edging out the other American team and a German team for top honors.

His gold medal in his pocket, it having been unceremoniously handed to him by a bobsledding official, Mason returned to his family in Germany. Not long after they would return to the United States, settling initially in Pittsburgh before moving on to Rumford.

After spending much of his career as a manager for the Newman Crosby Steel Company in Pawtucket, Mason retired and lived out his days in the East Bay, an unlikely — but very lucky — Olympic champion.

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