All achievers

Tenley Albright, M.D.

U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame

If you don't fall down, you aren't trying hard enough.

Tenley Emma Albright was born in Newton Center, Massachusetts. Her father, Hollis Albright, was a prominent surgeon in Boston. She put on her first pair of skates when she was six years old and, at eight, began to learn figure skating. At 11, she was suddenly stricken with poliomyelitis and was confined to her hospital bed, unable to walk.

As she recovered the use of her legs, she took up skating again and, only four months later, won the Eastern United States Juvenile Ladies Figure Skating competition. She won her first national Novice title at age 13, the national Junior title the following year and, at age 16, the U.S. women’s championship. She won a silver medal at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway.

19-year-old Tenley Albright in action, casting shadow on ice at Grossinger's Resort, Liberty, New York on November 29, 1954. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
19-year-old Tenley Albright in action, casting a shadow on the ice rink at Grossinger’s Resort, Liberty, New York on November 29, 1954. She successfully defended her U.S. figure skating title that year. (Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated)

The following year, still only 17, Tenley Albright became the first American woman to win the World Figure Skating Championship at Davos, Switzerland. In rapid succession she added her first North American title, and a second national championship.

After an international exhibition tour, she entered Radcliffe College as a pre-med student, with the intention of following in her father’s footsteps as a physician. She rose at four each morning to practice before classes, and managed to skate up to seven hours a day while still attending classes. She successfully defended her U.S. title in 1954 and 1955 and won a second World Championship in 1955.

February 2, 1956: Jubilant Tenley Albright leaps into the arms of her trainer, Dr. Guiseppe Gasparini, after winning the Olympic figure skating title at Cortina, Italy. (Bettmann/Getty)
1956: Tenley Albright leaps into the arms of her trainer, Dr. Guiseppe Gasparini, after winning the Olympic figure skating title at Cortina, Italy. After earning the gold medal, she returned to Radcliffe College as a pre-med student.

Albright took a leave of absence after her sophomore year to prepare for the 1956 Winter Olympics at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. While training, she fell on the ice, and her left skate cut a severe gash in her right ankle. She resumed practice immediately after treatment and, two weeks later, became the first American woman to win the Gold Medal for figure skating.

February 19, 1956: Carol Heiss (left) and her archrival, Tenley Albright, sign autographs on the skating shoes of eight-year-old Pamela Pruett.(Bettmann/Getty)
February 19, 1956: Carol Heiss (left) and her archrival, Tenley Albright, sign autographs on the skating shoes of eight-year-old Pamela Pruett. At the Winter Olympics, Albright earned the gold medal and Heiss took the silver.

A few weeks later, she lost her World title to long-time rival Carol Heiss, but bested Heiss the following month at the U.S. championships. Within a year of her Olympic triumph, Albright retired from competitive skating. She turned down lucrative offers to skate professionally and entered Harvard Medical School as one of five women in a class of 135.

January 30, 1956: Sports Illustrated cover with USA figure skating champions Tenley Albright and Hayes Jenkins. (Photo by Richard Meek/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
January 30, 1956: Sports Illustrated cover with USA figure skating champions Tenley Albright and Hayes Jenkins.

Dr. Albright practiced general surgery, taught at Harvard Medical School and was a public advocate for health and prevention on the national and international stage before joining MIT as a Visiting Scientist in 2005. She is the Founder and Director of MIT Collaborative Initiatives: an organization established to promote the value of unique collaboration across multiple disciplines and the principles of systems thinking in solving today’s complex social concerns. The organization has tackled many issues including Acute Ischemic Stroke, Childhood Obesity, Post-Traumatic Stress in the Active Military and Clinical Trials.

January 12, 2014: Dick Button and Dr. Tenley Albright are introduced during the Smucker’s Skating Spectacular following the Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Getty)

Based in Boston, she is on the board of Research!America, the Bloomberg Philanthropies and the leadership committee of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. She was formerly chairman of the Board of Regents of the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, served as a delegate to the World Health Assembly, and was the first woman on the Executive Committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee.   She has served on several corporate boards including State Street and West Pharmaceutical Services. She has also received eight honorary degrees. Dr. Albright has continued to skate and has shared the love of the sport with her three daughters and many grandchildren. She has been inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Association’s Hall of Fame as well as the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1976

“Whatever you do, if you do it the best you can, has a relation to whatever else you do. People have said to me, ‘What connection does surgery have to figure skating?’”

In 1956, only months after becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal, Tenley Albright entered Harvard Medical School as one of five women in a class of 135. She practiced as a surgeon, medical educator and public advocate before joining MIT as a Visiting Scientist. In 2005, Dr. Albright founded MIT Collaborative Initiatives to promote the value of collaboration across multiple disciplines and the principles of systems thinking in solving today’s complex social issues.

Dr. Albright believes the discipline and dedication she learned on the road to becoming a world champion figure skater helped prepare her for her career in medicine and beyond. As a skater, she won five consecutive national championships, and was the first American woman ever to win the world title and the first American woman to win Olympic gold.

Watch full interview

Dr. Albright, you had polio as a child, and you began skating as soon as you had recovered enough. What did that feel like?

Keys to success — Vision

By the time I came down with polio, at first nobody knew whether I ever would walk again or not. One Monday morning, the doctors came in and said to me, “On Friday we are going to ask you to take three steps.” That was the first time I ever remember visualizing. Looking back now, I didn’t realize it then. I worked all week, lying on my bed, thinking what it would be like and how I would somehow manage to take three steps. Friday morning came and somehow I did manage. And that was really the start of my recovery.

Keys to success — Courage

When I got out of the hospital, the doctors told my parents, “Parents aren’t going to want any of their children to play with her because they will be afraid they will catch polio,” even though they wouldn’t, but still, not enough was known about it. They said, “The best thing for her is to let her do whatever she has done before that she liked to do. Skating would be a good thing, since that’s something she did.” I remember very clearly going to the rink that first time — it seemed huge after being in the hospital so long — and hanging on to the barrier, sort of creeping along it, and staying down at one end. But when I found that my muscles could do some things, it made me appreciate them more. I’ve often wondered if maybe the reason it appealed to me so much was that I had a chance to appreciate my muscles, knowing what it was like when I couldn’t use them.

Did you fall down?

Tenley Albright: 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. When I had polio, there wasn’t any treatment except for what we call “Sister Kenney Treatments” that were steamed, hot packed towels. And I had skated a little bit before then. Not very much, because when I started skating we had gas rationing, and I was only allowed to go once a month. But with skating, every time I’d do it a little bit, I wanted to do it more.

Tenley Albright hugs her awards after receiving first place in the Olympic figure skating event at Cortina, Italy, February 5, 1956. (Bettmann/Getty)
1956: Tenley Albright hugs awards after receiving first place in the Olympic figure skating event at Cortina, Italy.

What was the most memorable moment in your skating career? What was the most intense experience you ever had as a skater?

Tenley Albright: You may not like to hear this, but when I was standing on the podium, and they were just about to hand me my Olympic gold medal, I thought, “This feels just like that first Eastern Juvenile Championship.” Because the emotions were pretty strong at that very first one — no matter how local or how little that competition was.

One of the most intense experiences that I had skating also occurred at the Olympics, and that was when, outdoors, in the middle of the championship, in the finals, when I was in the middle of my program, doing the free skating, in Italy, one part of my music was the Barcarole from Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach. The entire audience started humming my music. And it was just an overwhelming feeling of being close to everybody, whether you knew them or not. And it really spurred me on for the last tiring minute and a half of my program.

January 24, 1956: Italian soldiers observe world champion figure skater Tenley Albright getting ready for training on one the many ice rinks at the winter resort of Cortina, Italy. (Bettmann/Getty)
January 24, 1956: Italian soldiers observe world champion figure skater Tenley Albright getting ready for training.

When you were competing internationally, how far into the future did you look?

Tenley Albright: It scares me when I hear people say, “My daughter is going to be an Olympic swimming champion someday,” or when a young skater says to me, “Someday I want to win the world championships.” It’s nice to have motivation. It’s important that it be motivation from within, and not from a coach or friend or family. But I would bet you that most people who have succeeded, even though they had an idea of what they wanted to do, didn’t just say, “I want to be… ” and then name a title, or say “happy” or something like that. I bet it’s because they loved what they were doing. It certainly was for me.

Keys to success — The American Dream

When I was standing on the podium, outdoors in the mountains with the spotlights 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. I had such a feeling that it was my country, and felt as if I’d had such wonderful support from people who had written me.

You do it because you love what you are doing. And you don’t say I want to be a certain way or a certain type. It’s more a feeling from within, seeing what you can do.

Keys to success — Integrity

My grandmother said to me once when I had told her that my English professor in high school had said, “Why are you doing something as frivolous as a sport like skating? If you are interested in medicine, why don’t you just stop doing something so silly?” And I thought, he had a point, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be any use to anybody at the age of fifteen as a physician, and I mentioned it to my grandmother afterwards. And I said, “You know, it does sound silly, and it does sound as if I’m doing it just for my own fun.” And she said, “You have an obligation to do the best you can with whatever you’ve got. And if you like to do a sport, and you can do part of it well, that’s a way of expressing what God gave you.”

And each of us needs to do that in whatever field it is. Looking back now, I think she was right, because when I wanted to be in medicine, it made me feel the same way.

Keys to success — Vision

And then when I found I was interested in surgery, one of my friends said, “Tenley, how can you stand to be in surgery? How can you stand the sight of blood?” And I thought, well, I can’t. I don’t like the sight of blood any more than anybody else. But I feel I have to do something about it. I think I was motivated to do surgery because I had some feeling inside me that maybe I could do it a little bit gentler, spare a little bit more blood loss, be conscious that explaining to a patient beforehand what it would be like afterwards might help them recover a little faster. I wanted to have an influence. I wanted to have an effect. And that motivated me to go ahead and see what I could do. And try my hardest at it.