That Time Eleanor Roosevelt Became an Olympic Bobsled Racer

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Eleanor RooseveltPhoto: Nara Archives/REX/Shutterstock

Eleanor Roosevelt: Olympic Bobsled Racer?

Eleanor Roosevelt can claim more than her fair share of First Lady firsts. She was the first wife of a president to attend an inaugural ball without her husband. She was the first to hold her own White House press conferences (where only female reporters were invited to attend). And she was the first to go on to a successful post-White House career as a diplomat.

Less well-known—but no less impressive—is the fact that she was the first First Lady to race down an Olympic bobsled course.

In 1932, the third Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, New York. As the governor of the host state, Franklin Roosevelt had the honour of officially opening the games. Naturally, he brought New York’s first lady with him.

Among their stops on that cold day in February was a luncheon at the clubhouse near the recently opened bobsled run, the crowned jewel of the Lake Placid facility. Paul Stevens, one of the four Stevens brothers on the American bobsled team, was explaining the intricacies of the state-of-the-art bobsled run to Eleanor when he had a crazy idea. Would she like to go for a ride? Mrs. Roosevelt, who later in life developed a taste for driving her own car a bit too fast—and occasionally crashing it—said yes. (She also came to enjoy flying, especially when her friend Amelia Earhart was at the controls.)

Whether Stevens mentioned that just the week before the German bobsled team had ended up in the hospital when its sled careered off the track at the run’s notoriously dangerous “shady corner” is lost to history. What we do know is that a few minutes later Eleanor had strapped on a leather helmet, climbed into a sled driven by Henry Homburger, the Americans’ best driver, and was off on a ride that could exceed 60 mph. “The sled passed through the ‘zigzag,’ a double series of curves, and a few moments later was visible streaking down the mountain side and into the final curve,” the New York Times reported. “It shot up the wall of ice and down again and then raced under the finish bridge and up the slope to a standstill.”

Eleanor emerged with a big smile on her face.

“She complimented Homburger on his skill in handling the sled, and Harry returned the favour by expressing his admiration of her courage,” The Associated Press reported.

Next up, Jesse Owens recounts his friendship with a German athlete at the 1936 Olympics.

Originally Published on Reader's Digest

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