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A Woman of Firsts

Olympic gold medalist Tenley Albright

By Maya Finkelstein | March 15 , 2007
U.S. Olympic Figure Skating gold medalist, Tenley Albright smiles as she is honored at the 2006 State Farm U.S. Figure Championships at the Savvis Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images/NewsCom)
U.S. Olympic Figure Skating gold medalist, Tenley Albright smiles as she is honored at the 2006 State Farm U.S. Figure Championships at the Savvis Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images/NewsCom)

Tenley Albright was not only the first American woman to win the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, but was also one of the very few women of her generation to become a surgeon. She went on to have an exciting career and became a role model for both girls and boys interested in athletics or medicine.

Albright was born July 18, 1935 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. At age 9 she became interested in skating and started taking lessons.

“I used to go to a pond near to where I lived with my friend Betty Cooley. We liked to try and jump over the cracks in the ice. That was where I started," Albright said. "And then, my mother once took me to see a skating show in Boston. I thought it looked like so much fun. I said, ‘I’d like to try that!’”

At age 11, she suffered a major setback when she was diagnosed with non-paralytic polio and could not move her neck, back and right leg. She was in the hospital for three months and was very lucky not to have permanent damage. After recovery, she slowly took up skating again.

“I remember after I recovered from polio just hanging on to the barrier on the edge of the rink. I hadn’t skated for such a long time and my legs were weak," she said.

Albright didn't give up and in the 1956 Olympics, at age 20, she won the gold medal for figure skating. Albright then entered Harvard Medical School only months later. There she studied surgery and was one of only five women in her class! Women rarely went into surgery in those days.

World Champion and Olympic gold medalist Tenley Albright. (Photo: Zuma Press/NewsCom)

“People kept asking us, ‘Don’t you realize that you are taking the place of some well-deserving young man? What are you doing here?’ I didn’t mind very much because I knew that I was doing the right thing.”

Albright pushed on, despite facing some difficulties as a woman in the medical field.

“I think it goes with my liking to do my best, whether in skating: jump a little higher, skate a little faster; or something as important as surgery—whether I can make the patient heal faster and have less pain.”

Albright now speaks enthusiastically about all of today’s opportunities in the profession of surgery, compared to when she entered the field. There is even better technology, including delicate microsurgical instruments for smaller incisions, allowing patients to recover more quickly. Plus, there are many different surgical specialties, which all include women.


For more on the achievements and contributions of women in the United States, check out the Scholastic Kids Press Corps' Women's History Month Special Report.

About the Author

Maya Finkelstein is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.

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