Nion Tucker: The Improbable Story of Cal’s First Winter Olympics Champion

The University of California can boast of over 200 Olympic Medals won by its students, alumni and coaches. But of all those Olympic Medals, only two have come in the Winter Olympics. Jonny Moseley won a Gold Medal in Moguls in 1998, nearly a decade before he graduated from Cal. And way back in 1928, Cal’s very first Winter Olympian, a 42-year old banker, won Gold in bobsled despite having never been on a bobsled and never having never participated in competitive sports at all until he answered a newspaper advertisement just prior to the Olympics. Three weeks later, this Cal alum was an Olympic Champion. Here is Nion Tucker’s improbable Olympic story.

Official poster for the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland

Nion Tucker was born in Suisun City, California on August 21, 1885. He entered the University of California in 1905, where he was an associate editor of The Daily Californian, and a managing editor of the Blue and Gold yearbook, but was not involved in sports.

Nion Tucker (back row, center) and his fraternity brothers at Cal

After graduating from Cal in 1909, Tucker went to work at a San Francisco brokerage firm, where he became an expert on mergers and acquisitions. He eventually became the senior partner in his own brokerage firm, Tucker, Hunter, Dulin & Co, where, among other things, he was instrumental in merging a number of small airlines to create United Airlines. In the meantime, Tucker had married Phyllis de Young, the daughter of one of the founders of The San Francisco Chronicle, and a leader of San Francisco high society. Tucker served as a member of the Chronicle‘s Board of Directors for many years.

Tucker was on a trip to Europe in 1928 when he saw an article in the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune which said that the U.S. Olympic team was looking for Americans in Europe who would like to be on the Olympic bobsled team. More than 50 years later, one of Tucker’s bobsled teammates, Geoffrey Mason, described what happened in a Sports Illustrated interview:

I was reading the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune, and on the sports page, Sparrow Robertson mentioned in his column that the U.S. was organizing a bobsled team for the 1928 Winter Games. He noted that they had the necessary drivers and brakemen, but they still needed a few men to fill out the middle of the sleighs. Robertson indicated that any Americans interested could write to him, and he would pass inquiries on to the team organizers. 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.

Nion Tucker responded to the same ad. Tucker and Mason both got letters back from the U.S. Olympic team organizers inviting them to join the Olympic team, sight unseen.

Nion Tucker’s 1923 Passport Photo

The bobsled track in St. Moritz had been the first ever built, back in 1903. Although bobsledding had become popular in Switzerland, northern Italy and southern Germany, and had been an event at the first Winter Olympics in 1924, it was still largely unknown in the rest of the world. There were no bobsled tracks in the United States and the sport did not exist as a competitive event in North America. Nevertheless, the Americans planned to enter two teams into the 1928 Olympics. For the only time in Olympic history, the bobsled event — normally a four-man event — was conducted with five-man teams. This had made the shortage of American bobsledders even more acute. One of the American sleds, USA 1, had the more experienced team, and it was considered a favorite.

Tucker’s sled was USA 2. It was owned by a 16-year-old American boy, Billy Fiske, who had named his sled “Satan.” Fiske’s father worked at a brokerage firm in Paris, and the boy had been driving his bobsled on the track at St. Moritz for a couple of years. Apart from the driver, Fiske, the only other team member with any bobsled experience was the brakeman, St. Moritz resident Ned Parke. The other three, Nion Tucker, Geoffery Mason, and Clifford Gray, were all neophytes who had answered the newspaper ad.

In 1928 the bobsled was a very different creature than today’s Olympic viewers are used to seeing. The sledders rode prone, facing forward (rather like today’s skeleton competition, except with five riders). The driver laid down on the sled while his four teammates pushed it to start, and then they climbed on behind, piling on like shingles, one after the other. Nion Tucker was the number two man, with Mason as number three, Gray as number four, and brakeman Parke as the last man. In the days before the modern fiberglass bobsled, the brakeman would “bob” up and down during the run, which made the sled go faster, and gave the sport its name of “bobsledding.” The practice of bobbing became unnecessary, and detrimental to speed, with the advent of aerodynamic fiberglass sleds after World War II.

Tucker, Mason, and Grey arrived in St. Mortiz only three weeks before their event was scheduled, and that was all the time they had to learn the sport and practice for their Olympic competition. At young Billy Fiske’s suggestion, both the number four man, Grey, and the brakeman “bobbed” during the entire run. Mason later explained, “We were the only sled with two men bobbing. All the others had just the brakeman bob, and then only in the straights.”

The 1928 Olympic Champion bobsled team. Nion Tucker is at the far left.

The St. Mortiz games were marred by unseasonably warm weather and a lot of rain. As a result, the bobsled event was shortened from four runs to two. According to Mason, USA 2 was lucky. “We drew a starting position toward the end of the first heat, which gave us the advantage of a well-set track.” USA 2 had a 2-second lead after the first run. Rain started falling during the second run, and USA 2’s time was slower than the first run. But the rain affected the other teams as well. When the second run was finished, USA 2 had an average time of 3:20.5, beating out USA 1 by .5 seconds, and winning the Gold Medal.

The 1928 Gold Medal Bobsled team. Nion Tucker is the number 2 man, right behind driver Billy Fiske.

The medal ceremony in 1928 was quite different from today’s Olympic spectacle. The national flags were raised, but there was no playing of national anthems (which was just as well, since the United States did not have an official national anthem until 1931, when Congress gave that designation to the Star-Spangled Banner). The medals were not hung around the athletes’ necks, but were just handed to them in a box. Nevertheless, Cal’s Nion Tucker and his four teammates were all Olympic champions.

After winning his Olympic Gold Medal, Nion Tucker returned to his life as a San Francisco businessman, and is not known to have participated in competitive sports again. He died in San Francisco in 1950, at age 64. Sadly, his only son, Nion Tucker, Jr., was a Marine Lieutenant who was killed at Iwo Jima in 1945. However, his daughter, Nan Tucker McEvoy, eventually became the publisher of The San Francisco Chronicle, and a benefactor of the University of California. Her generous donation allowed Cal to open a world-class television studio at the Nan Tucker McEvoy Broadcast Laboratory in North Gate Hall.

Since 1928, a handful of other Cal alumni have participated in the Winter Olympics. In 1960, Cal’s Timothy Brown finished fifth in figure skating in the Squaw Valley Olympics, and in 1972 Connie Carpenter-Phinney finished seventh in the 1500 meters speed skating event in Sapporo, Japan (she later won a Gold Medal in cycling at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics). Julian Munoz competed for Costa Rica in slalom and giant slalom in 1988 and 1992. Chuck Berkeley, who was a track athlete at Cal, was on the four-man bobsled team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. With a name like Berkeley, he should have won Gold, but his team was disqualified when their sled crashed during its second run on the notorious Whistler track. In 2018 Elizabeth Swaney, a former coxswain for Cal Women’s Crew, finished last in the women’s halfpipe, competing for Hungary. But for the foreseeable future, Nion Tucker remains Cal’s most improbable Olympic Champion.

GO BEARS!

Sources

Anonymous, The 1908 Blue and Gold, Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, CA (1907)

Johnson, Phil, “You Say You’d Like to Be an Olympic Bobsledder? Just Drop a Line to . . . ,”Sports Illustrated, February 27, 1984.

Kraychir, Hank, Cal Athletic Stories, Vol. I, Kraychir Publications, Desert Hot Springs, CA (2009).

Shinn, Peggy, “Golden Moments: 1928 & 1932 Winter Games,” TeamUSA.org, USOC Official Site, December 2, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: