Two weeks before the 1956 Winter Olympics began in Cortina, Italy, Tenley Albright slipped on a bump in the ice and slashed her right ankle to the bone with her left skate. She had to be helped off the ice. Few expected her to compete for a figure skating medal. Practically no one expected her to win.
But the pretty young figure skater had overcome long odds before to reach the pinnacle of her sport.
Tenley Albright was born July 18, 1935 in Newton Centre, Mass., the daughter of a surgeon. At 11 she suffered an attack of polio. She spent months in bed, unable to walk three steps without help. The Sister Kenny treatment alleviated her pain: Soft wool cloths were soaked in hot water, wrung dry and wrapped tightly around her legs.
Slowly she regained the use of her legs. Her doctors recommended she do something she loved to build up her strength, so she resumed figure skating at the Skating Club of Boston.
The third oldest skating club in the country, the Boston club and its counterpart in Philadelphia incubated the American sport of figure skating.
Within 10 years Tenley Albright won six straight U.S. women’s single titles, the world championship and a silver medal at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo.
Two days after her accident in Cortina, Albright’s father arrived and operated on her injured ankle.
When the competition began, she made it through the short programs and compulsories, stoically enduring intense pain. The real test would come with the free skate program, where she would have to perform with assurance and athleticism – and without signs of pain or anxiety.
She had chosen a waltz, The Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, to accompany her skate. She began boldly. The crowd watched breathlessly as she spun and leaped, coming down hard on her right ankle without collapsing.
Then something extraordinary happened: The international audience began singing along with the waltz to encourage her as she skated.
“It was wonderful,” Albright said. “It made me forget about my injury.”
She finished to thunderous applause. Ten of the 11 judges gave her first-place scores. She won the gold medal in figure skating, the first American woman to do so.
Dr. Tenley Albright
Tenley Albright retired from skating after the 1956 Olympics and focused on finishing her education at Radcliffe College. She graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1962 and became a distinguished surgeon and cancer researcher.
Fifty years later, she said that famous skate seemed like it happened yesterday.
“This enormous feeling just sort of welled up in me,” she said. “There was the most wonderful feeling of camaraderie. It made me feel like the sport was an international language.”
This story about Tenley Albright was updated in 2019.