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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Tenley Albright in the Achievement Curriculum section:
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Tenley Albright
Tenley Albright
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Tenley Albright Interview

Olympic Gold Medal Figure Skater

June 21, 1991
New York, New York

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  Tenley Albright

You had polio as a child, and you began skating as soon as you had recovered enough. What did that feel like? Did you fall down?

Tenley Albright: If you don't fall down, you aren't trying hard enough, you aren't trying to do things that are hard enough for you. So falling down is part of learning for whatever you do, and it certainly is for skating. When I had polio, there wasn't any treatment except for what we call "Sister Kenney Treatments" that were steamed, hot packed towels. And I had skated a little bit before then. Not very much, because when I started skating we had gas rationing, and I was only allowed to go once a month. But with skating, every time I'd do it a little bit, I wanted to do it more.

By the time I came down with polio, at first nobody knew whether I ever would walk again or not. One Monday morning, the doctors came in and said to me, "On Friday we are going to ask you to take three steps." That was the first time I ever remember visualizing. Looking back now, I didn't realize it then. I worked all week, lying on my bed, thinking what it would be like and how I would somehow manage to take three steps. Friday morning came and somehow I did manage. And that was really the start of my recovery.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

When I got out of the hospital, the doctors told my parents, "Parents aren't going to want any of their children to play with her because they will be afraid they will catch polio," even though they wouldn't, but still, not enough was known about it. They said, "The best thing for her is to let her do whatever she has done before that she liked to do. Skating would be a good thing, since that's something she did." I remember very clearly going to the rink that first time -- it seemed huge after being in the hospital so long -- and hanging on to the barrier, sort of creeping along it, and staying down at one end. But when I found that my muscles could do some things, it made me appreciate them more. I've often wondered if maybe the reason it appealed to me so much was that I had a chance to appreciate my muscles, knowing what it was like when I couldn't use them.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Tenley Albright Interview Photo
You were nine years old?

Tenley Albright: I was eleven.

As a girl who had skated, had a normal life, and was very active, what did you feel with the uncertainty? Knowing that you were ill, how much fear did you feel?

Tenley Albright: I don't remember fear about being sick. The fear I had was staying in the hospital overnight. I couldn't imagine anything worse. But no one told me how serious it was. In fact, they took the sign "polio" off my door, hoping I wouldn't realize how sick I was. Looking back, I don't think I ever knew how sick I was because it never occurred to me that I couldn't and wouldn't get better. I feel very fortunate when I think of the number of people in the hospital at the same time who were in iron lungs, and I do feel lucky. Because of that, perhaps I was motivated to make the most of what I could do with that luck. The fear was really wondering if my friends would play with me when I did get out, and did understand what I had had. But it was just about two years ago that something occurred to me that hadn't until then.

When I was first in the hospital that very first night, they showed me the long needle that they were going to put in my back to do a lumbar puncture to try to make a diagnosis. But nobody told me they weren't going to put the needle all the way in, and I was scared. At the end of the bed there was a group of maybe six or seven house officers, interns, medical students, all in white coats. And as they were ready they had washed off my back, and were just about to put the needle in. I said, "Could someone please hold my hand?"

Tenley Albright: I remember very clearly now, that those people in their white coats looked at each other, and no one came forward for a long, long time. Finally, one person came forward and let me hold his hand and squeeze it when it really hurt. It wasn't until just recently that I realized, when someone was talking about the concerns of things as serious as HIV, that nobody understood how it could be communicated or how people could catch the disease. And as long ago as that, it was very similar to some of the things going on now. As a result of that experience, where the person did come forward and hold my hand, and let me squeeze it when it hurt, having the needle go in, in my own field of general surgery, anytime I've had to do a procedure on a patient, I've always made sure that someone, a nurse, a family member, someone, held the patient's hand while I was doing the procedure. Because it does help.

Can you talk about the roots of your dedication to master the art of skating, or the art, if you call it that, of surgery?

Tenley Albright: Whatever you do, if you do it the best you can, has a relation to whatever else you do. People have said to me, "What connection does surgery have to figure skating? Aside from the fact that they're both blades?" I never thought there was a connection, and I certainly didn't think of it when I began concentrating in the field of surgery. But there is a connection, because of the mental preparation, trying to do your best, expecting a lot of yourself, and learning to expect the unexpected. You have to be prepared, but you still don't know everything that's going to happen.

Tenley Albright Interview Photo
Right now, I'm working on getting some of the basic research I've been involved in clinically applied. Sort of bringing basic research to the bedside, so physicians can use it. And in looking back, in skating, everything is step-wise. I can remember taking several pairs of skating tights to the rink because I would get so soaked, falling down again and again and again while I tried the sit-spin. And I remember my mother saying once, "Tenley, let the other children do a sit-spin. Why don't you try something else?"

The feeling of when you finally do manage not to fall down, when you are trying something new, is such a wonderful feeling that you want that feeling again. And if you have mastered one little thing in skating, then you try the next thing. When you reach a certain level then you are allowed to take a preliminary test, a first test, a second test. If you pass that test you are allowed to go in the little local competition. So it's step by step by step. And it's a very good feeling to try hard and see that you've done it. And that applies to whatever you do.

I remember asking my father, who is also a surgeon, "Daddy how did you ever dare to do your first operation?" He said, "It's not a question of daring. By the time you are allowed to do it, you just are so convinced that you know how to do it so well, and you are anxious to." And of course there again, you are never allowed to do the whole cholecystectomy the first time. You are allowed to put in a skin stitch the first time, and that is quite a pleasure.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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