Heiss grew up in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, New York, where she started skating at the age of 6. She was coached by Pierre Brunet. Heiss first came to national prominence in 1951, when she was U.S. Novice Ladies' Champion at age 11. She won the U.S. Junior Ladies title in 1952, and then moved up to the senior level in 1953. From 1953 to 1956, she finished second to Tenley Albright at the national championships.
Heiss's 1956 performance qualified her for the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. She won the silver medal, while Albright took the gold. However, at the following World Figure Skating Championships at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany, Heiss defeated Albright for the title; it was the first of her five consecutive world titles. During that time, she attended and graduated from New York University.
After the 1956 Winter Olympics, Heiss had offers to turn professional and skate in ice shows. But her mother, Marie Heiss, was quite ill with cancer at the time, and before her death in October, 1956, she asked Carol to stay an amateur to win a gold medal for her. Between 1957 and 1960, Carol Heiss dominated women's figure skating like nobody since Sonja Henie. She was U.S. and World Champion every year, and at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, Heiss captured the gold medal, being ranked first by all nine judges. She also took the Olympic Oath for the 1960 games.
Following her retirement from figure skating in 1960, Heiss played the female lead in the 1961 film Snow White and the Three Stooges. She married Hayes Alan Jenkins, who had won the 1956 Winter Olympic gold medal in men's figure skating, and whose brother David Jenkins had won the men's figure skating gold medal in 1960. Although Heiss briefly skated in ice shows after the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, she retired from the sport in 1962. However, in the late 1970s, she returned to coach several skaters in her hometown area, Akron, Ohio where she became a prominent figure skating coach and is now coaching in Lakewood, Ohio. Some of her students include Timothy Goebel, Tonia Kwiatkowski and Miki Ando.
Heiss was known as a very athletic skater for her time. In 1953, she became the first female skater to land a double axel jump. Another one of her trademarks was doing a series of alternating clockwise and counterclockwise single axels. Heiss, incidentally, normally rotated her jumps clockwise and spins counterclockwise; it's much more common for skaters to do both in the same direction, usually counterclockwise.
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