JANUARY 30, 1956
Tenley Albright is the sort of high achiever who reminds the rest of us what slackers we are. In the midst of her undergraduate studies at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., she lived up to SI's forecast for the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy, by becoming the first American woman to win a figure skating gold medal. Albright, who as a child conquered polio, graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1961 and spent much of the next three decades performing general surgery. As her medical career progressed, she grew more interested in the early detection and prevention of disease, which led her to administrative work and fund-raising for human-genome research.
"I've turned from taking out tumors and cancers to seeing how we can prevent them from developing," says Albright, 66. Although she spends the bulk of her time at Harvard Medical School and the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute—which has helped map the approximately 30,000 genes in human DNA and is a leader in stem-cell research—Albright is also involved in fostering research on new drug-delivery systems, advises medical students at Harvard and is helping plan an exhibit on women in medicine at the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine. "It's hard for athletes to think they could find anything that consumes their interest as much as the sport they love," says Albright, who holds eight honorary degrees. "Medicine is that for me. I'm fascinated by the miracle of the human body."
The link between skating and surgery started when young Tenley would sit on the floor of her bedroom and use a razor blade to cut classical music tapes to skate to, carefully hand-splicing passages of Offenbach with Strauss and Vivaldi. "What attracted me to skating was that I wanted to fly," Albright says. "I broke umbrellas trying to jump off the garage roof when I was little." Although she didn't actually take wing on Cortina's outdoor rink, 10 of the 11 judges felt she had flown sufficiently to give their first-place votes to Albright's routine, during which thousands of spectators hummed along to the barcarole from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. The lone dissenter, the American judge, voted for Albright's teammate Carol Heiss, who got the silver and went on to marry men's gold medalist Hayes Jenkins (at left on cover with Albright).
Once in a while Albright still skates at a rink near her home in Boston. She has been married to her second husband, Jerry Blakeley Jr., for nearly 20 years and has three daughters, two granddaughters and five stepchildren. "Life is still filling up," she says. "I'm enjoying the amazing, unexpected things it brings."