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Albright lit up crowd at 2009 Eastern Sectionals

Olympic, world and U.S. champ inspires skaters from the stands

Dr. Tenley Albright and her daughter, Elin Gardiner Schran, at Eastern sectionals.
Dr. Tenley Albright and her daughter, Elin Gardiner Schran, at Eastern sectionals. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Liz Leamy, special to icenetwork.com
(12/05/2008) - Dr. Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist, two-time world champion and five-time U.S. champion, showed her competitive spirit is as alive as ever when she attended the 2009 Eastern Sectional Championships in Boston several weeks ago.

The icon, most famous for being the first U.S. lady to win an Olympic figure skating gold medal, showed up on the final night of the competition, which was held at her former training base -- the Skating Club of Boston.

Truth be told, Albright attracted virtually as much attention as the competitors. Sitting in the bleachers with daughter Elin Gardiner Schran, a skating coach and choreographer, she showed wonderful enthusiasm and support for all of the performers. She seemed especially energized by the six-minute warm-ups, watching skaters stroke around and run through their elements.

"I love this part of competition; it is just so much fun," said Albright.

Albright's presence elevated the entire arena's excitement level. From the moment she walked into the building, almost everyone took notice and acknowledged her as U.S. figure skating royalty.

For Albright, it was simply a night out to enjoy top-notch skating and a chance to have some quality time with her daughter, who is now married with three children.

"It is just so nice being back here to watch this competition," said Albright. "These skaters have all worked so hard to get here, and they're all very good."

Henry D. Son, the 2009 Eastern Sectionals chair, was also happy she attended.

"Tenley being there was special for a lot of us. We were very pleased to see her there," said Son, adding that he wanted to acknowledge her with a spotlight but couldn't get his idea approved in time by the chief referee at the start of the event.

Albright, a retired surgeon, certainly has a definite star quality about her just based on her physical appearance. She still sports her signature chin-length hairstyle, only now it is white, rather than chestnut brown. Her fitted, button-down, red, wool coat looked sophisticated and was accented with a large red necklace. Somehow, this ensemble seemed to capture the essence of Albright's personality. It bespoke of a rich New England conservatism and, at the same time, reflected an undeniably unique spirit.

Schran has served as U.S. Olympian (and Harvard sophomore) Emily Hughes' Boston-based coach and has lent a hand when Hughes' primary coach, Bonni Retzkin, has been home in Long Island. She agreed that her mom was something special.

"She's an amazing person," said Schran, a former competitive skater who, like her mom, represented the Skating Club of Boston. "She loves coming here to watch the skaters and competitions; it's such a big part of who she is."

Skating has always played a major role in Albright's life. She was born to Hollis and Elin Albright in Newton Centre, an affluent Boston suburb. She started skating at age nine when her dad flooded the backyard during the winter. Immediately, she decided it was something she wanted to pursue.

"It's such a wonderful sport. I've always loved it," said Albright.

At age 11, Albright had a brief bout with polio, a viral disease that can leave those who are afflicted paralyzed. Her parents thought that, if she put in ice time, it would help alleviate her symptoms. Thankfully, it did. At the same time, Albright reaped exponential rewards for her practice and became the Eastern sectional juvenile ladies champion the same year.

During this time, Albright trained with Maribel Vinson, the Boston-based coach who would sadly lose her life in the tragic crash of Sabena Flight 548 in 1961. Initially, Vinson felt that Albright's commitment was substantial but not enough to achieve any major competitive goals. In turn, Vinson had a stern lecture with her, and Albright began to dedicate herself more fully to training.

Albright especially loved doing the freestyle part of skating. Although she said she enjoyed practicing school figures, they were essentially an entrée to her favorite activity.

"I knew when I was done with them I could get out and free skate," she remembered.

Over the next few years, Albright flourished. In 1949, she was the U.S. novice champion; in 1950, she won the U.S. junior title. In 1952, she clinched her first-ever U.S. national title in the senior division, a feat that she repeated again the next four years.

In 1952, Albright won the Olympic silver medal. The next year, she earned the top spot at the 1953 World Championships, and she took the silver in 1954. She reclaimed the gold medal at the world championships in '55 and then won the Olympics in 1956. That season, she had been wrestling with an ankle injury and came up second at the 1956 worlds to her U.S. rival Carol Heiss.

During this time, Albright helped establish the U.S. as a dominant international force in ladies singles skating. She earned accolades for her fluid edges, lightness and big jumps. She was also known for skating well under pressure. Her signature look was a rose that she would wear over one ear.

"I loved to jump and [improvise] as I went along," said Albright.

She recalled her free skate at the 1956 U.S. Championships in Philadelphia. At that event, she had to skate very late at night, 10:56 p.m. to be precise, because the schedule had been delayed by a major snowstorm. Despite this obstacle, Albright had one of the best performances of her career and won her fourth and final U.S. title.

"I remember that night so well. It was four of 11, and there was a very bad storm," she said.

Albright was also a top student, just like her coach, Vinson, who was a Radcliffe College graduate and one of the first known female sports reporters for The New York Times. In 1953, Albright enrolled at Radcliffe, the then-"sister" school of Harvard University, to concentrate on pre-med studies on a full-time basis. She juggled a seven-hour daily training schedule and a heavy course load. At competitions, she was known for hitting the books whenever she had a break. Her efforts paid off and, in 1957, she graduated.

"I was busy," laughed Albright.

Albright went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard Medical School and became a surgeon, just like her dad. She practiced in Boston and also became involved in blood plasma research. She retired in the 1990s.

Throughout her life, even in the post-Olympic years, Albright never stopped being involved in skating. In the late '70s and early '80s, when her daughter was competing, Albright was a regular at the Skating Club of Boston. In 1977, Albright and Schran performed together at the big annual skating gala of that time, Super Skates, which was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

"We skated to 'Me and My Shadow,' and I remember tripping and Mom just telling me to keep on going," said Schran. "It was a lot of fun."

The skating world and several other prominent groups have recognized Albright for her accomplishments. In 1976, she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the Hall of Sports Academy of Achievement. In 1979, she was the first woman officer to be elected to the U.S. Olympic Committee and also worked with the International Olympic Committee. In 1983, she was invited into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame, and, in 1988, she was named to the Olympic Hall of Fame. In 2000, she was honored by Sports Illustrated for Women as one of the 100 greatest female athletes ever. She is also a member of the Harvard University Hall of Fame.

Although she no longer practices medicine, Albright remains active. She served on the Board of Directors for the American Cancer Society and led the World Health Assembly's international efforts to eliminate polio. Right now, she is part of a new entity with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is a collaborative initiative for complex social programs.

"She's incredible," said Schran. "She's won the Olympics, was a doctor and now this. She just keeps on doing great things."