Albright, Tenley (1935—)

views updated

Albright, Tenley (1935—)

American figure skater and surgeon, five-time winner of U.S. women's championship, and first American to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Name variations: "Dr. Tenley." Born Tenley Emma Albright on July 18, 1935, in Newton Center, Massachusetts; daughter of Hollis L. (a surgeon) and Elin Peterson (a housewife) Albright; graduated from Radcliffe College, 1957, and Harvard Medical School, M.D., 1961; married Tudor Gardiner, in 1962 (divorced); married Gerald W. Blakeley; children: (first marriage) three daughters, Lilla Rhys Gardiner; Erin Albright Gardiner; Elee Emma Gardiner.

Earned regional championship figure-skating title for age 12 and under (1947); winner of the U.S. Ladies Novice championship at age 13; winner of the U.S. Ladies Junior title at 14, and the U.S. Ladies Senior title at 16; winner of the U.S. National figure-skating championships five times (1952–56); first

American woman to win the World amateur women's free-skating title (1953); first American to capture an Olympic gold medal in figure skating (1956); first woman to be named to the U.S. Olympic Committee (1976); first woman to be admitted to the Harvard University Hall of Fame (1974); also admitted to U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame (1976) and Olympic Hall of Fame (1988).

On July 18, 1935, Tenley Emma Albright was born into a well-to-do family in Newton Center, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Her father was Hollis Albright, a prominent surgeon, and her mother was Elin Peterson Albright who scheduled the family's generally busy life. Tenley began skating the year she was eight and received her first pair of ice skates at Christmas; the following year, they were replaced by skates with the curved blades used in figure skating. Albright was so enthusiastic about the sport that her father flooded part of the backyard to create ice where she could practice. He also enrolled her at the Skating Club of Boston where she caught the eye of a well-known coach, Maribel Vinson Owen , the 1932 Olympic singles bronze medalist. At first, Tenley preferred free-skating to mastering the 68 figures basic to figure skating. But after Owen explained that the figures counted for 60% of competition scores, Albright applied herself to performing them with precision. She would later admit that she found them fascinating.

Tenley Albright was 11 when she contracted polio in September 1946. Fortunately, it was a mild case of the virus, and she was out of the hospital in three weeks, but her leg and back muscles were left weakened. At the encouragement of her father and other doctors, she returned to the ice to regain her strength, and the following year, in 1947, she attended the Eastern figure-skating championships in Philadelphia. There, she won the title for girls 12 and under—the first of many championships.

Her life was disciplined. Motivated to become a surgeon like her father, she was an excellent student at Manter Hall School in nearby Cambridge, rising each morning at 4 am to practice skating at an indoor rink. "I had to listen to my music over and over while working out my routines," she said. "I couldn't do that with other skaters present, all wanting to play their music, or at least getting very sick of mine." After three or four hours on the ice, she went home to breakfast and then to school. In summer, she traveled to Lake Placid, New York, Denver, Colorado, and California for more skating practice at rinks.

As Albright continued competitive skating, her expenses continued to escalate, rising from $400–$500 a year to $4,000–$5,000 (an enormous sum for the period) and finally to $30,000 as she neared the Olympic level. Fortunate to have well-to-do parents who could meet such expenses, Albright wanted their investment to pay off. At the Oslo Olympics in 1952, she placed second behind Jeanette Altwegg of Great Britain in the Winter Games. In 1953, Albright became the first American woman to win the World amateur women's figure-skating championship title, in Davos, Switzerland. From 1952–56, she won the U.S. National figure-skating title five times. In 1956, age 21 and recognized as one of the best skaters in the world, she began to prepare for the next Olympics. Albright was intent on being the first American woman to capture a gold medal in women's figure skating.

In the meantime, she had become an undergraduate student at Radcliffe College, carrying the academic schedule typical of students in premed. Studying physics and chemistry as well as preparing for the Olympics, she still rose early every morning to skate and averaged seven hours a day on the ice. The little blue Porsche given to her by her father was used mostly for ferrying herself between classes and the skating rink. Following her father's example, she never touched coffee or tea, much less alcohol or cigarettes.

Altwegg, Jeanette

English figure skater. Won the World Championship (1951); won the Olympic gold medal in figure skating (1952) and the bronze (1948).

Jeanette Altwegg beat out Tenley Albright for the gold medal at the Oslo Games in 1952. Four years earlier, Altwegg came in third behind gold medalist Barbara Ann Scott of Canada. Foregoing the Ice Capades route, Altwegg retired immediately after the 1952 Games to work at the Pestalozzi Children's Village in Trogen, Switzerland.

For many years, Albright's main competitor had been Carol Heiss , who would win the U.S. Nationals from 1957–60. In contrast to Albright's poised and fluid, classical style, Heiss was a fiery whirling figure who skated with complete abandon. The media reported a rivalry that the two women never considered personal; they regarded each other instead as worthy opponents, accepting the fact that only a few points separated them in any competition. Two weeks before the Olympics, it looked as if Albright's chances for a medal might be shattered when she struck a hole in the ice during practice and fell, cutting a gash in her right leg with the sharp edge of her left skate. Albright, however, was soon back on the ice.

At the beginning of the 1956 Olympic competition in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy, Albright beat Heiss by a slim margin in the school figures and free-figure trials. Despite her recent injury, Tenley was in top form for the final competition, performing a spectacular mazurka, witches' jump followed by a drag, and an Axel Paulsen jump. She became the first American woman figure skater to win the gold medal. Heiss took the silver; Ingrid Wendl of Austria took the bronze. On March 4, a crowd of 50,000 turned out to greet the champion on her return to Newton, Massachusetts.

But the fierce Heiss-Albright rivalry continued. Three weeks later, while competing in the World Championship in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany, Albright lost to Carol Heiss by a few points. In the next U.S. National competition in Philadelphia, it was Albright's turn to defeat Heiss by the same slim margin. Afterward, the two young women posed arm-in-arm for the cameras. Albright told reporters, "I think we both know how the other feels."

With medicine in mind, but with many offers to turn professional as a skater, Albright decided to put the glamour of the sport behind her. She refused a $100,000 contract for an exhibition tour and the offer of a Cadillac if she would skate on occasion for General Motors. "I've wanted to be a doctor since I was a little girl," she said. "The skating offers were flattering. But the only thing that would have kept me from medicine would have been not getting into medical school." Since both her college record and medical-aptitude test scores were outstanding, she was accepted into Harvard Medical School after only three undergraduate years, one of six women admitted into a class of 140.

With the approach of the 1960 Olympics, Albright thought briefly of competing. When she asked for permission to leave school for a few weeks of training in Squaw Valley, she was told that she would have to lose a full year of medical studies. The cost too high, she no longer considered competitive skating. Albright did, however, continue to skate for pleasure.

Interested initially in pediatrics, Albright became fascinated with surgery. Few American hospitals accepted women as surgical residents at the time, and the male monopoly on the profession had not yet been broken in Boston, but she was attracted by its precision and concentration:

There isn't any real exercise or practicing you do, apart from operating, except perhaps cutting with your left hand or tying knots. You begin by holding a retractor for five hours. My first operation I held a retractor, and I was so far back I couldn't even see the operating field. Then they let you sponge, and then they let you put in one skin stitch, and by the time they let you really do something you can't wait to get in there. Surgery, I think, is all of medicine, plus a little bit more, and I love the idea of being able to do something well technically. Like working on a jump and then doing it higher.

In 1962, when she was 26, Albright had completed medical school and begun her residency at Beverly Hospital, 17 miles outside Boston, when she married 43-year-old Tudor Gardiner, a classical philologist from a socially distinguished Boston family. The original wedding date had to be changed because Albright, a young resident, was on duty. She recalled:

You know the honeymoon is supposed to be different from what your life will be like so we stayed home for two weeks. Then I was on duty at the hospital every other night and every other weekend. For six months I commuted, and for six months Tudor commuted, and then for six months we lived in Beverly, in four rooms in an abandoned pediatrics ward. Lilla had been born and I wanted to be able to look in on her during the day.

Through the birth of two more daughters, Tudor continued to cooperate with his wife's erratic schedule. Describing the dominance of her medical practice in the marriage, Albright recounted, "There was an emergency one night and I called Tudor and said, 'I won't be finished in time. Can you feed the baby?' I called later and asked, 'Did you give her her bottle?' and Tudor said, 'Yes. Now I am going to give her her cereal. If she doesn't eat it, I am going to.'"

It was no surprise when Albright entered general surgical practice with her father. One of the first women in surgery in the Boston area, she performed appendectomies, amputations, thyroidectomies, and complex gastrectomies, which involve partial removal of the stomach. Before reporting to the operating theater, she would wake her daughters, give them breakfast, and get them off to school, but the rigors of her practice were a strain on the marriage.

In 1964, Albright attended the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, where she donated a silver cup for the best free-skating performance by a woman. That year, the women's title went to Sjoukje Dijkstra of the Netherlands; Regine Heitzer of Austria won the silver, and Petra Burka of Canada took the bronze. American chances in figure skating had been shattered before the games even began. On February 15, 1961, 72 persons boarded a plane to attend the world figure-skating championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia, including 18 members of the U.S. figure-skating team, five coaches, and the team manager. When the jetliner crashed at Berg, near Brussels, Belgium, all the passengers were killed. Five of the skaters had participated in the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley. They were Laurence Owen in women's singles, and the pairs teams of Maribel Owen and Dudley Richards and Ray and Ila Hadley. Another victim was Maribel Vinson Owen, mother of Laurence and Maribel, and coach of Tenley Albright.

While in Innsbruck, Albright also visited clinics for sports medicine and interviewed doctors from all over the world. After becoming a general surgeon at Boston's Deaconess Hospital, she showed increased interest in sports medicine and eventually founded Sports Medicine Resource, Inc., in Brookline, Massachusetts, an early attempt to focus on the specialized medical care of athletes. She also showed up three times a week at the Skating Club of Boston for short sessions on the ice.

Tenley Albright became the first woman officer on the U.S. Olympic Committee (1976), was named to the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame (1983), and organized a seminar on fitness for older Americans (1989). After a divorce from her first husband, Albright married Gerald W. Blakeley, a real-estate developer. In winter, "Dr. Tenley" (as she prefers to be called) continues to skate on a neighborhood pond or rink when her schedule allows. For her, the disciplines of skating and medicine have been closely linked. "You're always preparing for something," she said, "it really matters if you pay attention."


Bingham, Walter. "Figure Skating," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 67, no. 17. October 19, 1987, pp. 57–59.

Bock, Jean Libman. "Father-Daughter Surgical Team," in Good Housekeeping. Vol. 151, no. 3. September 1960.

Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1956. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Dietz, Jean. "Senior Set: Rediscovering the Secret to Fitness," in Boston Globe. January 29, 1989, p. A13.

"Formula for Titles," in Newsweek. Vol. 41, no. 14. April 6, 1953, pp. 76–77.

Gross, Leonard. "Champion's Dawn," in Collier's. Vol. 137, no. 4. February 17, 1956, pp. 26–27.

Keerdoja, Eileen, and Jacob Young, et al. "Gold Medalists Still Skating Through Life," in Newsweek. Vol. 101, no. 5. January 31, 1983, pp. 10–12.

LaFontaine, Barbara. "There Is a Doctor on the Ice," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 22, no. 6. February 8, 1965, pp. 28–30.

"Mothers and Daughters," in Time. Vol. 76, no. 13. March 26, 1956, p. 72.

"Victory Over Polio," in Life. Vol. 31, no. 9. March 2, 1953, pp. 78–80.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia