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Meet Tenley Albright And Carol Heiss, The Figure Skaters Who Started Team USA’s History Of Olympic Gold 60 Years Ago

By Karen Rosen | Feb. 02, 2016, 5 p.m. (ET)

Tenley Albright (L) and Carol Heiss (R) won gold and silver in ladies' figure skating at the Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

Tenley Albright remembers hearing the most unusual sound.

She was in the middle of her program at the Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games, skating to the famous music, the “Barcarolle,” from “The Tales of Hoffmann,” with the Italian sky above her and the Dolomite mountains in the distance.

“I thought it was in my head, but I suddenly realized that the audience was humming the music,” Albright, now 80, recalled. “I was close to the boards and I could hear them. That was the most uplifting thing. It was such an amazing feeling of connection.”

Her connection to Cortina is now a continuous one, her name inscribed in stone at the Stadio Olimpico del Ghiaccio. Feb. 2 marks the 60th anniversary of Albright becoming the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal in ladies’ figure skating. Albright began a rich history of U.S. Olympic ladies’ figure skating champions that has seen seven U.S. women take the gold, more than any other nation.

Carol Heiss took the silver in 1956 for the only 1-2 U.S. ladies’ finish until Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan in 1998.

Tenley Albright is introduced during the Smucker's Skating Spectacular following the Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 12, 2014 in Boston.

Albright professed being “horrified” when she saw that it has been six decades. “I didn’t feel old until I heard that,” she said. “I think Carol would probably say, too, when we think of the competitions and the outdoor skating and the Olympics, it’s so vivid in our memories. It just seems sort of timeless; it seems as if it’s just been.”

The U.S. women had a tough act to follow. One day earlier, the U.S. men swept the podium, with Hayes Alan Jenkins – Heiss’ future husband – winning the gold, Ronnie Robertson the silver and David Jenkins, Hayes’ younger brother, taking bronze.

Albright, then 20, was the reigning world champion and had won the silver medal four years earlier at the Oslo Winter Games. Heiss was the up-and-comer.

“For me, it was my first Olympics,” said Heiss, now 76, who won the Olympic gold medal four years later. “I had my 16th birthday there with the team – the whole thing was just very exciting. I had no real expectations. I had been second in the world the year before, so I wasn’t expected to win.

“It’s like boxing – it’s pretty difficult to beat the champion. I just thought it’d be wonderful to be on the podium.”

Then 10 days before the competition, Albright fell in practice, jeopardizing her chances.

“I spiked myself,” Albright said. “I still have a little hole in my ankle.

“It was a beautiful day and a wonderful practice session, and I was just skating really fast backwards and my foot hit a rut – which you had in outdoor skating – and I went flying. My left heel went into my right ankle and I couldn’t get up.”

Teammate Cathy Machado, the first Hispanic skater to represent the U.S. at the Winter Games, rushed to Albright and helped her up.

“She knew darn well I didn’t want anybody to see I was hurt,” Albright said.

An Italian doctor took out some scissors to cut off Albright’s boot, but she stopped him. They were the only boots she had except the ones she used for compulsory figures.

“And then he poured some disinfectant on it and blew on it to dry it,” Albright said.

The doctor proved more helpful in loaning her a pair of his shoes because she couldn’t fit into her own. Someone took Albright’s boot to a local shoemaker to stitch it up.

Her own wound, however, required the attention of Albright’s father, a renowned Massachusetts surgeon, who came to Cortina and taped it.

Carol Heiss is introduced during the Smucker's Skating Spectacular following the Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 12, 2014 in Boston.

“I heard him coming down the hall,” Albright said, “so I got out of bed and tried very hard to stand up straight on my foot and I was so pleased that I could take one little step. When he saw me, he didn’t even say hello. He said, ‘Oh, is that all you can do?’”

Albright said she never allowed herself to think that her four years of preparation would come to naught.

But she had to skip the Opening Ceremony, watching the athletes’ parade from the window of her hotel room.

Competition began with two days of compulsory figures, also called school figures, which were tracings in the ice. They then counted 60 percent toward the total score, but are no longer part of the Olympic Games.

Cortina was the last totally outdoor figure skating competition. “I remember some of the school figures, you couldn’t see your tracings because of the snow.”

The judges had it easier: they just brushed off the snow.

They also came so close to the skaters while tracing their loops that Albright said, “you could have touched them. And that’s unnerving.”

She won the figures competition, with Heiss second. Machado, who was 10th, would eventually finish third in the free skate to place eighth overall.

The morning before the free skate, Albright was warming up and testing her ankle. “I did a waltz jump and I went flat in front of everybody, so that was not good,” she said. “I remember looking up and seeing people’s faces rather pale.”

However, in the days leading up the competition, she had worked on visualization, picturing what she had to do and told herself as her program began, “I know I’m going to get through this. I may not be able to get off the ice, but I know I’m going to get through this.”

Albright added, “I think that’s something that competitive skating teaches you, too. I’ve always liked to feel you can do more than you think you can do.’”

Although she had to change her program slightly, taking out one double loop in her Axel, double loop, double loop combination, she was able to get off the ice. “On my feet!” she said.

She didn’t let the wind on the outdoor rink bother her, she said. “I clearly remember taking off my double Axel in the sun and landing in the shade. That was the really startling thing.”

She was also startled before stepping on the ice when the head of the famous traveling show, the Ice Capades, “planted a kiss on my cheek. I was mortified because if you’re seen talking with somebody in the professional world, you turned pro and I hadn’t talked to him.”

No one confronted her about it at the time, and the statute of limitation has surely run out by now.

Albright won first place from 10 of the 11 judges. Heiss won the final judge, skating to a Rossini piece, “If I Were King.”

“Once the music starts, you get into the program,” Heiss said, “then it’s like I just enjoyed looking at the crowd. The rink was beautiful, it was gorgeous with the Dolomites in the background and the crowd was wonderful, so it was just an exciting experience for me. I was very pleased with the performance.”

The medal ceremony in Cortina, with the mountains and Olympic cauldron in the background was “breathtaking,” Albright said. “I stood there at that moment and just I felt as if I was connecting with everybody who had sent me a telegram, or the home Boston Skating Club, or anybody I knew. I just all of a sudden had this image of them and felt very close to them.”

People all over the world felt close to her, too. Some even named their children after her. Albright would receive cards and letters, and in 2014 her three daughters organized a “Tenley Party” through social media.

There were 67 Tenleys at the party from as far away as London and Holland. “One whose parents liked my name got a cow and they named the cow after me,” Albright said, “and when they had her, they named her after the cow.”

Each participant received a flower for their hair, because that’s Albright’s signature.

Although she finished second at the 1956 world championships behind Heiss, Albright won the national championships, which at that time were the final competition of the year, going out on a high note.

She retired and went straight to Harvard Medical School, to the chagrin of the Ice Capades.

“I always loved the idea of going into medicine and wanted to be a doctor,” said Albright, whose interest in medicine was reinforced at age 11 when she contracted polio, “so my motivation was to get on with that. Also, if I were in an ice show, I’d be re-choreographing the thing every other night.”

Her need for variety prompted her to go into general surgery and Albright has always maintained that surgery has parallels to skating.

“You learn time management,” she said. “You learn what it is to know that you’ve done your best and you know that you learned that you shouldn’t just accept things the way they are. You should be innovative and figure out other ways and better ways to do things and you learn the intense concentration that you have to have in the OR and the steadiness.”

There is also something she has called “surgical conscience.”

“When you’re in the operating room, only you know that you’re making above-and-beyond efforts, to have things come out, even if it’s going to take a little longer or it’s going to take more out of you.

“In the way that you jump or thought something new up, when you know you’ve done your best for a patient, it’s a very satisfying feeling and of course makes you want to do it even more and even better.”

Albright is now director and strategic lead of the MIT Collaborative Initiatives, in which experts from various fields work together to solve societal issues. They have tackled acute ischemic stroke, childhood obesity, posttraumatic stress and clinical drug trials.

Albright’s official biography is full of accolades, inductions and important boards she serves on as a director. The very last line says, “Earlier, she was a Gold Medal Olympic Figure Skater.”

“Well, it’s important to me,” she said with a laugh. “It has certainly made a tremendous difference in my life.

“Because I loved it. Because it challenged me. Because I discovered if I called the skating club or the Boston Arena after 10 o’clock at night and if they hadn’t sold all the ice for hockey at 4 in the morning, they’d let me come and skate for free.”

The Boston Arena gave Albright a key and when she turned the lights on the rats ran under the stairs. Or there would be hot dogs on the ice. “I just thought it was wonderful,” she said.

Skating also made a tremendous difference in Heiss’ life.

For the teenager from New York, the Cortina Games marked the beginning of her relationship with Jenkins – whom she married two months after she was crowned Olympic champion in 1960 – and a special time to spend with her mother, who, unbeknownst to Heiss at the time, was dying of cancer.

The U.S. team had a birthday party for Heiss on Jan. 20. “Actually, that’s the first time that Hayes kissed me on the cheek,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Oh, he’s so good-looking,’ I had known him since I was 13, being on the world team. But I think it’s the first time that I thought, he’s really handsome.’”

They spent time together in Cortina, at the world championships two weeks later in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where they both won, and on a tour of Europe with the team.

Heiss’ mother had been sick on and off for about six months before they arrived in Cortina, but she said, “I didn’t really know what it was.” Her mother became ill in Cortina – although she did see her daughter compete – and Heiss’ coach told her before leaving for Germany that it was cancer.

“From the time we got home from worlds she was bedridden and died Oct. 30,” Heiss said.

Although the Ice Capades wanted Heiss to be the star of the show, earning, she said, “probably 10 times the amount my dad was making,” her mother asked her, “What do you want to do?”

“I said I would like to stay around for the next Olympics to try and win the Olympic gold,” Heiss said, “and her quote was, ‘All right, you go for the gold medal. That’s what you want to do, you go for the gold medal.’

“I couldn’t see myself turning pro at 16, even though we needed the money. From the time you’re 8, 9, 10 years old, you always dream about being Olympic champion.”

After her mother died, she learned to keep house and cook and help care for her younger brother and sister. Heiss was undefeated from 1957-60, which ended with winning the Olympic gold medal in Squaw Valley, California, and appearing in her very own ticker tape parade in New York.

“The gold medal is just something very special to the individual,” Heiss said. “As my coach always used to say, it doesn’t make you happy for the rest of your life. It opens doors, and you have to take the right door and walk through it. But it doesn’t ensure happiness. It doesn’t ensure anything, it doesn’t ensure health, it doesn’t change the baby’s diapers if you have children. It was a very good lecture, but there is a self-confidence that you get from that that you are willing to try something that you really want to do, and the other thing is it teaches you to go for a goal in something you’re passionate about.

“And I’ve always been passionate about skating. I still am, I just love the sport, everything that goes with it. Everything.”

After Squaw Valley, she appeared in ice shows and in a movie, “Snow White and the Three Stooges.” She was a television commentator while her three kids were growing up and then became an elite coach.

Heiss has coached athletes from South Africa, Mexico and Taiwan at the Olympics and still goes on the ice with her seven pupils. However, she has cut back her schedule so that she doesn’t coach all day anymore.

“Now as I’m older and I look back, I think how lucky and fortunate I was to achieve the top in a sport that I’m passionate about,” Heiss said.

Albright, who was drawn to skating as a child because it was like flying – and safer than jumping off the garage roof with an umbrella – occasionally goes on the ice with one of her daughters.

“It’s frustrating if you hear the music and you want to jump on the ice and go until you forget you haven’t been doing it every day,” she said. “You should see me in my dreams. I fly in my dreams. I stay up so high and I turn so many times, and I land wherever I want. It’s lovely.”