Tenley Albright took home a gold medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics
More than 60 years after she took home America’s first Olympic gold medal in women’s figure skating, Tenley Albright is rinkside at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, gazing at the skaters and marveling at how far her sport has come.
“It’s amazing what these youngsters are doing,” Albright, now 82, tells PEOPLE of Olympic hopefuls like Team USA’s Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou and Mirai Nagasu. “The jumps are phenomenal. It’s hard to realize how difficult they are because they make them look easy.”
When she took the Olympic ice in Cortina, Italy in 1956, dressed in a rose-colored costume with flowers in her hair, Albright gave a gold-medal performance that was equally phenomenal for the time — especially since the 20-year-old had suffered a severe leg injury less than two weeks before the Games.
After hitting a rut in the outdoor ice in Cortina, the Newton Massachusetts, native had gashed her leg to the bone, but was stitched up in time to compete by her own father, who was a surgeon.
Albright followed in her father’s footsteps after the Olympics, becoming a surgeon as well as a Harvard Medical School faculty member and a cancer research scientist.
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Now 82, she still sports a flower in her white hair and continues to work as director of MIT’s Collaborative Initiatives foundation, but still vividly recalls her gold-medal skate.
“When you’re out there, you are so aware, of the setting, the music, the looks on people’s faces. It really is like a form of heightened awareness. I found the same thing in surgery, where you have to be absolutely focused, but also aware of the instruments, the patient, all of the things going on.”