In 1953, American figure skater Tenley Albright (born 1935) became the first "triple crown winner" ever, as she captured the World, North American, and United States ladies figure skating titles. However, she faced her ultimate challenge as she competed with a serious foot injury in the 1956 Olympic Games. Despite her pain, she skated away with the top prize, becoming the first American woman to win a gold medal in Olympic figure skating.
As Sports Illustrated for Women selected the top 100 female athletes of all time, writer Richard Deitsch reflected, "Few skaters have ever combined athleticism and artistic grace as successfully as Tenley Albright." Barbara Matson of the Boston Globe added, "Albright's athletic story is one of courage and strength of spirit… . She is [number one] in the celebrated history of American women in Olympic figure skating."
Tenley Emma Albright was born on July 18, 1935, in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, the daughter of Hollis, a prominent Boston surgeon, and Elin (Peterson) Albright. She also had a younger brother, Niles. She received her first pair of ice skates at the age of eight. The Boston Globe 's Matson noted, "Like many New Englanders, [Albright] skated on a flooded backyard at first, but as her love for the sport grew and her talent began to show, she headed to the Skating Club of Boston for lessons."
Although Albright was hard-working and devoted when it came to academics, she was unsure how serious she was about ice skating. As noted in Great Women in Sports, "Albright had to be persuaded to put the same amount of concentration into her skating. After a stern lecture by her coach, Maribel Vinson, the youngster decided to buckle down… . "
In a 1991 interview with the Academy of Achievement, Albright reflected, "I like to think that I was good in the compulsory figures. That wasn't the part I enjoyed. The jumps, the spins, the dance steps, the choreography, and especially that feeling [of] trying to fly, was what I really liked… . " Guided by her coach, Albright hoped the results would soon follow. Instead she would soon face a potentially life-changing illness.
Diagnosed with Polio
Illness almost ended Albright's career before it began. In 1946, she contracted polio, an extremely serious viral disease that often leaves its victims partially paralyzed. In the Academy of Achievement interview, Albright recalled, "When I came down with polio, at first nobody knew whether I ever would walk again or not."
Reflecting back on her illness, Albright noted that she really was not scared about being sick. She recalled in the Academy of Achievement interview, "The fear I had was staying in the hospital overnight. I couldn't imagine anything worse." She continued, "But no one told me how serious it was. In fact, they took the sign 'polio' off my door, hoping I wouldn't realize how sick I was. Looking back, I don't think I ever knew how sick I was, because it never occurred to me that I couldn't and wouldn't get better."
Albright recovered and was soon released from the hospital. Since she was still weak, the doctors encouraged her to return to ice skating, feeling that the exercise would improve her strength. The doctors were correct in their assessment; just four months after her polio attack, Albright won her first important competition: the Eastern Juvenile Skating Championship.
Won Olympic Silver
As noted in her profile on Hickoksports.com, "In her early teens, Tenley Albright had two ambitions: To become a surgeon, like her father, and to win a gold medal in figure skating." Albright worked hard and was soon winning more competitions. At age 13, Albright won the U.S. Ladies Novice championship, and at age 14, she won the U.S. Ladies Junior title.
In the Academy of Achievement interview, Albright reflected on her determination and noted, "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. So, falling down is part of learning for whatever you do, and it certainly is for skating."
To the surprise of many, Albright made the 1952 Olympic figure skating team. In the United States 1952 Olympic Book—Quadrennial Report, it was noted, "From the foregoing, it will be seen that our skaters placed very well in this difficult competition." The book added that Albright "skated brilliantly to gain second place in the ladies' event."
Winning the silver medal at the Winter Olympics was considered quite an accomplishment for Albright, as she had never been the United States national champion. She won that title a month after the Olympics, winning the first of five consecutive national championships. A year later, at the age of 17, Albright became the first American woman to win the World Championship in ladies figure skating.
Prepared for Her Shot at Gold
Albright's daily routine included getting up before four a.m. each day, so she could practice before breakfast, and then going to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And while waiting her turn to skate at competitions, Albright did her homework.
Her dedication to her studies paid off. In 1953, she entered Radcliffe College as a pre-med student, with the intention of following in her father's footsteps and becoming a surgeon. She continued her demanding schedule, still rising by four a.m. each morning to practice before classes. Generally, she skated seven hours per day and successfully balanced her training and school. Her dedication on the ice also paid off. She successfully defended her national title in 1954 and 1955 and won a second World Championship in 1955.
In her athlete profile from the U.S. Olympic Committee Web site, Albright talked about the demands of competition. She recalled, "When I was competing, we were outdoors. So despite all my preparation, I never knew whether I would be skating in a snowstorm or whether it would be raining or windy. I've learned to expect the unexpected."
Although Albright continued to excel and win titles, a talented rival, American skater Carol Heiss, emerged. In her interview with the Academy of Achievement, Albright noted, "And anyone who has won anything knows what it's like not to win. And I remember the day when I kept on hearing 'Well, someone has to lose.' And it occurred to me … someone has to win, too. So you might as well give it a good hard try." Recognizing that Heiss was a tough competitor, Albright decided to take a leave of absence from school in order to focus and train for the 1956 Olympics.
Olympic Gold Medal
The stage was set. Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, was the host city of the 1956 Winter Olympics. The town had been selected to host the Winter Olympics in 1944, but World War II led to the cancellation of the games.
These Winter Olympics were also special in that they were the first to be internationally televised. In The History of the Olympics, Martin Tyler and Phil Soar noted, "Millions of people watched on television, and 13,000 gaily expectant onlookers packed the newly built stands … for the opening of the seventh Winter Olympics… . "
"The road to an Olympic gold medal in figure skating is never easy," noted Frank and Clare Gault, in Stories from the Olympics—From 776 B.C. to Now. But if Albright was feeling the pressure, she did not show it. In her Academy of Achievement interview, Albright noted, "I didn't work on skating to be the best woman skater on the planet. What appeals to all of us is to do something that is a challenge."
Albright was facing two major challenges in Cortina. Heiss was a fierce competitor and also wanted Olympic gold. In addition, Albright suffered an injury two weeks before the competition. As noted in Great Women in Sports, Albright fell on the ice and seriously hurt her foot, cutting her right ankle to the bone. Her father came to Italy and repaired her ankle, but many believed this injury would take Albright out of the running for the top prize. However, Gault and Gault noted in Stories from the Olympics—From 776 B.C. to Now, "She was determined not to miss another chance at the Olympic gold medal."
Albright had worked too hard for too long to give up. As noted in Great Women in Sports, Albright stated, "The one thing I want to be able to do after it's over is say that was my best. It's better to lose that way than to win with something less than that." After the compulsory figures, Albright and Heiss were in first and second place respectively, and their scores were very close. That meant Albright's final program had to be free of mistakes in order to win.
It came down to the free skate. Tyler and Soar noted in The History of the Olympics that Albright "presented a wonderfully delicate programme, dramatically timed to Tales of Hoffman in a seemingly effortless, graceful style, ending splendidly with a rapid cross-foot spin." Gault and Gault added, "Despite her handicap, she skated a flawless program and won her long-sought prize." Albright had become the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in ladies figure skating.
In the Academy of Achievement interview, Albright remembered receiving her gold medal. She recalled, "When I was standing on the podium, outdoors in the mountains with the spotlights in the night they gave out the Olympic gold medal, I could hardly believe it. I suddenly felt as if I knew everybody in the United States."
Retired From Skating to Attend Medical School
Shortly after winning her gold medal, Albright's home-town had a parade for their Olympic champion. Yet, she had little time to celebrate her victory, as more competitions quickly followed. Heiss won the World Championship, but Albright responded by winning the U.S. Championship a month later. However, it appeared that Heiss would now be the leading woman on the ice.
After winning her gold medal, Albright enrolled in summer school in order to catch up with her classmates and graduate on time. Within the year, Albright retired from competitive skating, having turned down lucrative offers to skate professionally and earned her bachelor's degree from Radcliffe. She entered Harvard Medical School in the fall of 1957. She was one of only six women in a class of 130 students. From the late 1900s into the turn of the century, figure skating, especially professional figure skating, has become quite a lucrative spectator sport. As noted in Great Women in Sports, Albright "the consummate amateur … has never received a single paycheck from her skating."
In her Academy of Achievement interview, Albright reflected on starting medical school. She said, "Once again, I felt like a real beginner. And I'll never forget those first few months." She continued, "But I found myself very anxious to get to working with patients. And it took me a while to understand that we weren't going to just start right in there." But according to the Academy of Achievement Web site, Albright soon realized that "the discipline and dedication she learned on the road to becoming a world champion figure skater helped prepare her for her career in medicine."
Career as a Physician and Researcher
Albright graduated from medical school and followed in her father's footsteps, becoming a surgeon. She practiced medicine in Boston and was involved in blood plasma research at the Harvard Medical School. In addition, Albright also served her community and tried to help others. She served on the Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society and chaired the National Library of Medicine Board of Regents. Albright also led international efforts to eliminate polio when she was a member of the World Health Assembly.
Awards, Honors, and Family Life
Albright married and had three daughters: Lilla Rhys, Elin, and Elee. Talking about how skating relieved some of her daily stresses, Albright told WomenSports magazine, "It almost alarms me how free I feel on the ice. I don't think about the hospital or the groceries or the kids—I'm just in touch with myself. It's exciting when your whole body is moving in synchronous motion."
Albright divorced and later remarried in 1981. She and her second husband, Gerald W. Blakeley, Jr., settled in the Boston area. She retired from her medical practice in the 1990s.
Since stepping out of the limelight of ladies figure skating, Albright has received many honors. In 1976, Albright was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, and the Hall of Sports—Academy of Achievement. She was named to the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1988 and was named one of the "100 Greatest Female Athletes" by Sports Illustrated for Women in 2000. In addition, her alma mater inducted her into the Harvard University Hall of Fame, and she has served on the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee.
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