When she was 17, Tenley Albright, the pretty figure skater from Newton Centre, Mass., was sitting on top of her own particular world and with no place left to go; when she was 18, fate was unkind enough to pull the world out from under her and she sat down very hard; now at 19, she's the Old Champ trying to prove that one mistake doesn't count.
The fall, which was both literal and figurative, took place just a year ago in the Bislet Olympic Stadium in Oslo, Norway, on the final day of competition for the women's world figure skating championship. Tenley was the champion, the first from the U.S., and was strongly favored to repeat. She had piled up a comfortable lead of 21.8 points over Gundi Busch, the German girl she had beaten the year before, and had only to continue at a routine pace to keep the title, when it happened. Tenley went into a combination axel and double loop jump and promptly stunned the stadium and herself by inexplicably falling flat. Stunned by the awfulness of it all, Tenley went through the rest of her program in a deep trance. She never really recovered.
Even before the shock wore off Tenley was laying plans for recapturing her crown. "Right then." she recalls, "I had to go off by myself and do that jump again and again to prove that I could do it without falling."
There you may have Tenley's secret. A girl of 18 who can fall flat in front of a stadium full of people, yet remain the fiercely determined competitor willing to practice all night to eliminate the fault, never will be easy to beat.
She'll have her chance this month at the Wiener Eislauf Verein in Vienna. No woman ever has lost the championship and later regained it, but Tenley's fortunes have not been hurt by Miss Busch's turning professional, the usual routine for a woman champion. Tenley's principal competition will come from Erica Batchelor of England, Barbara Gratton of Canada and young Carol Heiss of New York City. Miss Heiss is 15 and has been skating in championship competition for several years.
There is nothing at all in Tenley's background or environment to explain her pre-eminence in figure skating, except perhaps that it is cold around Boston. Her skating glory began when she was 8 and got a pair of skates for Christmas. They weren't the right kind but she made them do and the next year she got a pair of figure skates with white boots. Her father, Dr. Hollis Albright, had had the backyard flooded to make a rink and Tenley divided her time between there and the indoor rink of the Skating Club of Boston, the home club of a long line of American champions.
I first saw Tenley at the club when she was 10 and I thought then that she had talent, but like all the other young children she had no interest in practicing the basic figures. With the other little girls she would hide in the dressing room while the serious figures were being practiced, waiting for the music which would send them into a frenzy of undisciplined leaps and spins.
One day I lectured the little things on the futility of trying to become a great skater and champion, which they all professed to want to be, without putting in the concentrated hours of practice that not only give the basic control of skating but count 60% in championship competition. I went on to explain the absorbing fascination of executing all of the 68 basic skating figures with absolute mastery. My enthusiasm didn't take, though, and I let the matter drop.
But two weeks later Tenley approached me rather shyly and said, "I'd just like to tell you, Miss Vinson, that you're absolutely right about the school figures. I began to practice them and they're just fascinating." Tenley was on her way. As a pupil she was serious, receptive, diligent, and displayed enormous powers of concentration. She was extremely fond of skating. A teacher could ask no more.