Albright, Tenley

views updated Jun 08 2018

Tenley Albright


American figure skater

A pioneer on and off the ice, Tenley Albright was the first American woman to win a gold medal in ladies singles figure skating at the Olympics and the first American woman to win a world championship. Albright's strengths were her figures, and graceful free skates. She was as technically proficient as women figure skaters were in her day, and her success marked the beginning of America's powerful presence in figure skating. After her skating career ended, Albright attended Harvard Medical School and became a surgeon.

Albright was born on July 18, 1935, in Newton Center, Massachusetts, the only daughter of Hollis and Elin Albright. Albright's father was a surgeon, and the family was one of privilege. Her father was a lover of sports, and encouraged his daughter. Albright began skating when she was eight or nine years old on a backyard skating rink her father created for her because of her interest in skating.

Began Skating

Albright later told Hali Helfgott of Sports Illustrated, "What attracted me to skating was that I wanted to fly. I broke umbrellas trying to jump off the garage roof when I was little." Within a year of pond skating, she moved to the Skate Club of Boston for lessons. Albright had not planned to skate seriously, but Maribel Vinson Owen, who had won U.S. championships in the late 1920s and early 1930s, noticed her abilities. Owen later coached Albright.

One initial problem for Albright was her disinterest in compulsory figures, which were certain moves, such as figure eights, created on the ice. Albright found them boring, but later became skilled at them. She preferred the free skate, a program set to music. Skating was not her only talent. She was also very academically talented, attending the Winsor School in Boston, and the Manter Hall School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Developed Polio

When Albright was 11 years old, she developed nonparlytic polio (also known as poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis), which put her in the hospital for three weeks. She could not use her leg, back, or neck. Many people suffering from the viral disease became paralyzed because it attacked motor nerve tissues. Albright's doctors urged her to begin skating soon after her illness was over because it would help work her back muscles, which had been weakened by the illness. Albright soon began taking skating very seriously.

Within a few months of recovering from her illness, Albright won the under 12 category at the Eastern Regional Championship. Albright won a number of titles over the next few years. She was the National Ladies Novice Singles Championship title winner in 1949, and then the National Junior Champion in 1950. In 1951, she won the U.S. Ladies Senior Eastern Championship and finished second at the U.S. Championship behind Sonya Klopfer.

While Albright was serious about skatingto the point that she would spend summers practicing at locations with indoor rinksacademics remained important to her as well. She wanted to be a surgeon like her father, and would study between practice sessions and skates, even at competitions. Her hard work would pay off when she succeeded in both areas of her life.

Won First U.S. Women's Title

In 1952, when she was 16, Albright won her first U.S. women's singles championship. Albright would repeat as U.S. singles champion every year through 1956. This victory led to Albright qualifying to represent the United States at the Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. Though she was not expected to win a medal, she ended up winning a silver medal in women's singles figure skating. Jeanette Altwegg from England won the gold medal. This was the first time an American woman had won a medal in figure skating since Beatrix Loughran in 1924. An injury prevented Albright from going to the World Championship that year.

Albright did even better in 1953, when she became the first triple crown winner. In addition to the U.S. title in women's singles figure skating, she also won the North American Championship and the World Championship. This was also the first time an American had won the World Championship. Despite her success, Albright had a reserved personality and her coaches often had to remind her to smile.

Entered Radcliffe College

To achieve her goal of being a surgeon, Albright entered Radcliffe College in the fall of 1953. Balancing school and skating was difficult. She practiced figure skating daily from four to six o'clock in the morning before classes and related studies. Albright also studied ballet during the day to supplement her skating.

Albright continued to compete internationally while attending school, although she did not match her 1953 success. In 1954, she could not defend her title at the World Championship. During her free skate Albright fell and came away with only second to West German Gundi Busch.

To prepare for the 1956 Olympics, Albright took a leave of absence from Radcliffe in the fall term of 1955. She had already attended summer term so she could keep up with her class. She garnered her second triple crown in 1955, winning the World, U.S. and North American Championships.


1935Born July 18, in Newton Center, Massachusetts
1946Contracts polio
1952Competes in the Winter Olympics
1953Enters Radcliffe College
1955Takes leave of absence from Radcliffe College to prepare for World Championship
1956Competes in the Winter Olympics
1957Retires from competitive figure skating in January; graduates from Radcliffe College; enters Harvard Medical School
1961Graduates from Harvard Medical School
1962Marries Tudor Gardiner on December 31
1976Receives appointment to the board of officers of the United States Olympic Committee; serves as physician for the U.S. Winter Olympic team

Won Gold Medal at Olympics

Because of her stature in world figure skating, Albright was a favorite going into the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy. In the days before the competition, Albright suffered an injury that nearly put an end to her chances at a medal. While practicing, her skate blade hit a groove and she fell, her left skate blade slicing her right ankle to the bone, slashing a vein. The incident hospitalized Albright, and was front page news in Boston.

Albright's father came to Italy and took charge of his daughter's medical care. Although in pain and needing to wear a bandage outside of the competition, Albright resumed practicing. The day before the competition, Albright was still unable to do many of her jumps; but she pulled it together and won the gold medal for her graceful free skate with ten of eleven judges giving her first place.

Albright landed all of her jumps, including her single axel (which was the most difficult jump women were expected to complete at the time). She defeated 21 other competitors, including 16 year-old Carol Heiss Jenkins, a fellow American. Of her performance, she told Dick Heller of the Washington Times, "I was skating to 'The Bacarolle' from 'Tales of Hoffman.' Suddenly, the audience began to sing the words, and their voices just thrilled me. Chills were going up and down my spine. I forgot about the injury and just skated."

Albright followed up her Olympic gold with another spectacular performance, finishing second a short time later at the World Championship in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Heiss Jenkins, who finished second at the Olympics, finished first at the World Championship. Albright went on to defeat Jenkins at the U.S. championship.

Retired from Competitive Figure Skating

In January 1957, Albright retired from competitive figure skating. Although she had an offer to join the Ice Capades, the leading professional ice show of the day that many figure skaters of her stature joined when they retired, she continued with her education instead. She graduated from Radcliffe in 1957 and then entered Harvard Medical School. Albright was never paid to skate.

Years after her victory, Albright's importance as a figure skater remained. Ten years later, Barbara La Fontaine remembered in Sports Illustrated, "Tenley remains in the minds of many people our most accomplished and impressive champion. A well-bred young lady, she was nevertheless, a real competitor, as steely as she was gracious. Her style was distinguished, a technical proficiency rounded by a dancer's training and sensitivity and marked by taste and intellect."

Awards and Accomplishments

1949Won Ladies Novice Championship
1950Won Ladies Junior Championship
1951Won Eastern Senior Ladies Championship; finished second at the U.S. Championship
1952Won silver medal at Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway
1952, 1956Won U.S. Championship
1952-56Won U.S. women's singles title
1953, 1955Won North American Championship
1953, 1955Won World Championship
1954, 1956Placed second at World Championship
1956Won gold medal at Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy
1974Inducted into the Ice Skating Hall of Fame
1975Received honorary degree of science from Russell Sage College
1976Inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame; awarded Golden Plate Award by the American Academy of Achievement
1983Inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame
1988Inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame
1999Inducted into the Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame

Where Is She Now?

Albright completed her medical training at Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1961. While she still skated for her own enjoyment, her focus for many years was on her surgical career. She began by joining her father's practice and was also a general surgeon at Boston's Deaconess Hospital. Albright's skating career was definitely linked to her medical career. She told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, "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. You don't always know what you'll find when you open a patient, and you have to be prepared."

Later in her medical career, Albright had a solo practice, in affiliation with New England Baptist Hospital. She also developed an interest in research, working at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute studying how to prevent and detect diseases early in their progression, researching drug delivery systems, and fundraising for human-genome research. She also founded Sports Medicine Resource in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Sports medicine was not her only link to skating. She skated for charity performances like the United States Figure Skating Memorial Fund, and taught underprivileged children how to skate. In 1976, she was the first woman named to the U.S. Olympic Committee and served as chief physician for the U.S. Winter Olympic team. Albright also served on the International Olympic Committee.

Albright married Tudor Gardiner in 1962, and had three daughters: Lilla, Elin, and Elee Emma. She divorced, and later married Gerald Blakeley, her second husband.


Address: 25 Shattuck St., #316, Boston, MA 02115-6092. Phone: 617-247-8202.



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"Formula for Titles." Newsweek (April 6, 1953): 76.

Helfgott, Hali. "Catching Up With Tenley Albright, Figure Skater January 30, 1956." Sports Illustrated (January 30, 1956): 16.

Heller, Dick. "Albright Overcame Polio, Ankle Injury to Win Gold in Skating." Washington Times (February 11, 2002): C7.

Klein, Gary. "Most of Her Breaks Have Been Good Ones." Los Angeles Times (February 21, 2002): U7.

La Fontaine, Barbara. "There is a Doctor on the Ice." Sports Illustrated (February 8, 1965): 28.

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"Athlete Profile: Tenley Albright." U.S. Olympic Team. (January 13, 2003).

Sketch by A. Petruso

Tenley Emma Albright

views updated Jun 08 2018

Tenley Emma Albright

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."

Early Years

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, "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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