Born in 1935 in the US state of Massachusetts, Tenley Emma Albright suffered an attack of polio at the age of 11 and was encouraged by her surgeon father to take up figure skating as a form of muscle therapy. The “treatment” worked so well that she would go on to become one of the greatest figure skaters in the world in her teenage years, finishing second to Jeanette Altwegg (GBR) at the 1952 Olympic Winter Games in Oslo. Crowned US champion every year from 1952 to 1956, she was also a two-time world champion (1953 and 1955).
“As soon as I found out that the Olympic [Winter] Games were going to be held in Italy, I knew that I just had to be there,” said the talented American. But with less than two weeks to go before the start of the figure skating competition, disaster struck as she fell awkwardly in training, and her left skate cut her right ankle joint to the bone. Her father arrived in Cortina two days later and proceeded to stitch the wound so proficiently that his daughter was able to compete.
On the morning of the compulsory routines, on Monday 30 January, Albright, still in great pain, was unsure if she would be able to perform any form of jump. However, she put in a faultless performance to move into pole position after nine out of the 11 judges decided she deserved first place ahead of a pair of talented teenagers, compatriot Carol Heiss and Austria’s Ingrid Wendl.
There standings remained unchanged after the following day’s free skate, during which Albright again entranced the crowd with her routine set to music from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffman. “One part of the song has quite a lively air, and when I got to it, the public began to hum the tune,” she recounted. “It was the most comforting, marvellous feeling, and it literally lifted me into the air. At that moment, I felt a real bond with the crowd.”
After again winning over the majority of the judges, the 20-year-old, who scored 169.67 points, became the first ever American women to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Heiss (168.02 points) and Wendl (159.44) took silver and bronze respectively.
Two weeks later, Heiss got her revenge in the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (GER). Albright took silver; it would be the last medal of her career, as she subsequently spurned offers to turn professional and began studying for a medical degree, going on to become a respected surgeon like her father. During the 1980s, the former skater assumed the role of Vice-President of the US Olympic Committee.