Edward “Eddie” Patrick Francis Eagan (1897–1967) is the only person to have won gold medals in two different sports at the summer and winter Olympics. Born in Denver, Eagan attended Longmont High School and the University of Denver before going on to Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, where he earned his law degree as Rhodes Scholar. As a boxer, he won the US and British Amateur Heavyweight titles as well as Olympic gold in 1920. Later recruited as a bobsledder, he was part of Billy Fiske’s winning team at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid. He was one of the inaugural inductees into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.
Eddie Eagan was born in Denver on April 26, 1897, to John and Clara Eagan. His father died in a railroad accident when Eddie was young, and Clara moved the family from Denver to Longmont. Eagan’s character and life were shaped in large part by a dime-novel hero—Frank Merriwell. The fictional Frank Merriwell was an all-around athlete and Yale graduate who never smoked or drank and exemplified the qualities of truth, loyalty, patriotism, duty, and strength. Throughout his life, Eagan strove to live up to these ideals.
Eagan was exposed to boxing at the age of twelve, when he was working as a chore boy on a ranch. A small ranch hand named Abe Tobin stood up to the huge foreman and knocked him down. Eagan later said that he had seen “grace, rhythm, science, music in action.” For the next two years, he became Tobin’s boxing pupil. When Tobin left Colorado, he urged Eagan to stick to his books and to always “fight for fun” instead of becoming a professional. Eagan followed Tobin’s advice: as an amateur, he never earned money from the sport, and Fighting for Fun was the title of his 1932 memoir.
At Longmont High School, Eagan was forced to forgo school athletics to earn money for his family. During the school year, he worked as a janitor and church caretaker and sold newspapers on Sundays. During summers, he worked herding cattle and in canning factories. He kept up his boxing skills with a sparring partner. At sixteen, he competed in his first tournament with the Denver Athletic Club. Defeating contestants from six western states, Eagan became the Western Amateur Welterweight Champion.
Eagan was awarded a scholarship to the University of Denver, where he enrolled in fall 1916. In addition to his classes, Eagan worked as the physical instructor at the West Side Neighborhood House, where his payment was in food and lodging. The next year, he won both the middleweight and heavyweight divisions of the Western Amateur Championships. He also fought an exhibition match with heavyweight contender Jack Dempsey, another Coloradan. The fight, part of a fundraiser for the Red Cross, was held at Denver’s Empress Theater. For the first time in his life, Eagan was outfought. Dempsey nursed him through the fight, holding him up at times to make sure he made it through all three rounds. It was the start of a lifelong friendship.
Fighting in World War I
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Eagan enlisted in the army. Called up that autumn, he withdrew from the University of Denver and headed to California for training. He was selected for Officer Candidate School, became a second lieutenant, and spent the rest of the war training troops at Camp Taylor in Kentucky.
A fellow soldier at Camp Taylor convinced Eagan to head to Yale, the alma mater of his fictional hero, Frank Merriwell. Eagan arrived there in January 1919 with only his army uniform and twenty dollars in his pocket. After convincing the dean to admit him, Eagan again found a job that provided housing, this time as a physical instructor with the YMCA. Early in 1919, Eagan competed in the National Amateur Boxing Tournament in Boston, winning the heavyweight division.
The National Amateur victory gave Eagan a chance to try out for the US team at the Inter-Allied Games (the “Military Olympics”) in Paris. The heavyweight slot was already taken by future world champion Gene Tunney, but Eagan was offered the middleweight slot if he could make the weight. After struggling to lose nine pounds in four days, he had an easier time taking the middleweight championship. In addition to winning a medal, Eagan also got a press pass to see the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I.
Eagan returned to Yale for the next school year. He lost his national amateur title in spring 1920 but later qualified for the light heavyweight division of the US Olympic team for that summer’s games in Antwerp, Belgium. There Eagan defeated opponents from South Africa, England, and Norway to win gold. Despite pressure to turn professional, Eagan steadfastly refused to fight for money.
During Eagan’s senior year at Yale in 1920–21, he played on the varsity football team, captained the boxing team, was elected as class orator, and graduated with honors. He enrolled at Harvard for law school, but one of his football teammates urged him to apply for the coveted Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford. He won the scholarship in spring 1922, during his first year at Harvard Law, and headed to Oxford that fall.
At Oxford, Eagan soon became friends with Lord Clydesdale and other members of the Oxford Boxing Club. He competed in the British Amateur Boxing Championship, winning the heavyweight title. After completing his jurisprudence degree in 1924, Eagan headed to Paris with Lord Clydesdale to watch that summer’s Olympics. The president of the US Olympic Committee convinced Eagan to compete, but he was not in fighting shape and lost in the first round.
Eagan returned to Oxford for a third year and worked toward another degree. At the end of that year, he was offered the chance to chaperone two young Americans on an all-expenses-paid world tour. He accepted. Throughout the trip, he competed in charity boxing matches in any country with a heavyweight champion who would take him on. He won them all, earning the unofficial title of “Champion of the World.”
Eagan spent his first months back in the United States studying for the bar exam and training with Gene Tunney, now the professional World Heavyweight Champion. On October 1, 1927, he quietly married Margaret Colgate, the heiress to the Colgate soap fortune, whom he had been dating over the summer. The next spring, Eagan received his MA from Oxford.
In 1931 Eagan had dinner with an old friend, former jockey Jay O’Brien, who was now head of the US Olympic Bobsled Committee. O’Brien invited Eagan to join him on the US Bobsled Team for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York—despite Eagan’s never having been on a bobsled. Eagan and O’Brien were placed on a team captained by Billy Fiske, who had driven to victory four years earlier. The team wasn’t favored to win, but Fiske’s relentless training paid off. Twelve years after his first Olympic victory, Eagan got his second Olympic gold.
Eagan never got back in the boxing ring or on a bobsled. Instead, he worked as assistant district attorney for the Southern District of New York. During World War II, he rejoined the army and served as chief of special service in the Air Transport Command, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. Following the war, he served as New York State Boxing Commissioner. In 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him to head the People to People Sports Committee, and he spent the remainder of his life encouraging young people to take up sports. Eagan died of a heart attack on June 15, 1967, at age seventy, and is buried in Rye, New York.
In 1983 Eagan was a member of the first group of inductees into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. In 1990 he was honored with a US stamp, part of a booklet celebrating five gold-medal-winning Olympians.