February 3, 1956

Tenley Albright Wins Olympic Gold

PRIMARY SOURCE: Interview, 1991
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On this day in 1956, figure skater Tenley Albright won the Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Cortina, Italy. This should not have been a surprise, but it was. The 20-year-old from Newton was the clear favorite until she injured herself only two weeks before the games. Few people thought she would be able to compete. She skated flawlessly and became the first American figure skater to win gold. Tenley Albright had defied the odds before. Stricken with polio at age 11, she had skated her way to recovery. Her determination made her a great skater and, after her retirement from competition, helped her realize her other life ambition. She became a respected surgeon and medical researcher.

In 1953 Tenley Albright became the first woman skater to win the sport's "triple crown," capturing the World, North American, and United States figure skating titles.

In 1956, 20 year-old Tenley Albright of Newton became the first American figure skater to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Albright retired from skating almost immediately and turned her attention to her other life goal: becoming a surgeon and medical researcher.

Only six of the 130 students in her Harvard Medical School Class were women, but Albright was undaunted. She had spent much of her young life fighting long odds.

Tenley Albright was born in Newton in July 1935, the daughter of a prominent Boston surgeon. When she was eight, she received her first pair of skates, and her parents flooded a portion of their backyard so that Tenley and her brother could skate. As her love and talent for the sport grew, Tenley began taking lessons at the Skating Club of Boston. Her instructors recognized her gift but were frustrated that academics were a higher priority for her than skating. In the beginning, she skated simply for the joy of it.

In 1946, when she was 11 years old, Tenley Albright contracted polio. The dreaded disease kept many children confined to hospitals and iron lungs for months at a time; many of its young victims were left partially paralyzed. After being hospitalized for several weeks, Tenley was well enough to go home. She was among those fortunate enough to escape paralysis, but the polio left her very weak.

Doctors suggested that skating might help her to regain her strength. A determined and focused Tenley concentrated on rebuilding her muscles through skating. Years later she remember her return to the rink. "It seemed so huge after being in the hospital so long . . . hanging on to the barrier, sort of creeping along it, and staying down at one end. But when I found that my muscles could do some things, it made me appreciate them more. I've often wondered if maybe the reason it appealed to me so much was that I had a chance to appreciate my muscles, knowing what it was like when I couldn't use them."

A determined and focused Tenley concentrated on rebuilding her muscles through skating.

As Tenley Albright concentrated on skating her way back to health, she began to treat the sport with the same concentration and seriousness that she brought to her studies. She began to take risks on the ice and overcame her fear of falling. "If you don't fall down, you aren't trying hard enough, you aren't trying to do things that are hard enough for you," she has said. "I can remember taking several pairs of skating tights to the rink because I would get so soaked, falling down again and again and again while I tried the sit-spin. . . . [But] the feeling when you finally do manage not to fall down, when you are trying something new, is such a wonderful feeling that you want that feeling again. . . . And that applies to whatever you do."

Amazingly, only four months after she had returned to the ice, Tenley Albright won the Eastern Juvenile Skating Competition. The next year she won the U.S. Ladies Novice championship, and at age 14, the U.S. Ladies Junior title. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1952 and brought home a Silver Medal.

Skating did not distract Albright from her studies. She rose each morning at 4:00 am to skate before breakfast, attended a full day of school, then returned to the ice in the afternoon. This grueling routine allowed her not only to get in seven hours of skating each day, but to qualify for admission to Radcliffe College as a pre-med student.

Even after she entered Radcliffe, she continued to balance skating and studying. She won five consecutive national championships and in 1953 became the first woman skater to win the sport's "triple crown," capturing the World, North American, and United States figure skating titles.

"If you don't fall down, you aren't trying hard enough, you aren't trying to do things that are hard enough for you."

In 1956 the 20-year-old Albright took a leave of absence from college to prepare for the Olympics. Competition was expected to be fierce, particularly from her talented teammate Carol Heiss. This would be the first internationally-televised winter Olympics, and millions of people were expected to tune in to see the popular figure skating event.

Two weeks before the games opened, catastrophe struck. Albright hit a rut in the ice and fell; the blade of her left skate cut her right ankle, slashing a vein and scraping straight to the bone. Her surgeon father flew to Italy to repair the injury. He found her in bed and hardly able to walk. Few people believed she would be able to compete.

Showing her characteristic grit, she refused to give up and decided to stay in the competition. She later told an interviewer, "The one thing I want to be able to do after it's over is say that was my best." Her best turned out to be very good indeed. Skating before 10,000 spectators, she won the Gold Medal. She was welcomed back to Boston with a parade.

Albright hit a rut in the ice and fell; the blade of her left skate cut her right ankle, slashing a vein and scraping straight to the bone.

Within a year of winning her Olympic Gold Medal, she retired from competitive skating. She turned down many lucrative professional skating contracts to focus on her other life ambition — becoming a surgeon. She took summer classes to catch up with her classmates and graduated from Radcliffe in three years. In the fall of 1957 she entered Harvard Medical School.

She approached medical school the same way she had approached skating — taking one step at a time. The discipline and dedication she had developed as an athlete proved enormously helpful. She found that the intense concentration and focus required for competition were also essential when performing surgery.

Tenley Albright had a successful career as a surgeon and blood plasma researcher. She and her husband raised three daughters. They lived in Brookline close enough to the Country Club for her to put on her skates and take a spin around the pond.

In 2000, Sports Illustrated named Tenley Albright one of the "100 Greatest Female Athletes."

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Boston Globe, September 21, 1999.

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