Debi Thomas: Blade Runner

This dynamo is America's most forceful challenger of East Germany's defending gold medalist

Debi Thomas competes during the Winter Olympics XXIV womens' figure skating competition circa 1988 in Calgary, Canada. Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty

Debi Thomas, strapped into her white Toyota Supra, speeds toward an ice rink in Denver at nearly eighty miles an hour with the Fuzzbuster on. With the radio blasting, Thomas, one of the country's brightest hopes for an Olympic gold medal, swallows the last crumbs of her second raspberry Pop-Tart.

In the world of skating, a sport known for cliques and omnipresent mothers, Thomas is an outsider. She is brash and irreverent; when everyone else is cracking under pressure before a competition, she tells jokes. Calling the sport "too unpredictable" to bank on, Thomas is the first female champion in thirty years to balance full-time university studies with competition (she is a junior in premed at Stanford, having turned down Harvard and Princeton). She loathes early-morning practice, a time when most skaters take the ice. She hates to train. Yet almost in spite of herself, she wins.

In 1986, Debi Thomas became the first black world champion in the history of the sport. Her skating was fiery, and her jumps -- the most challenging element in competition -- were as high as some men's. The following year, when Thomas returned as the defender with severe tendinitis in both ankles, she lost the title as graciously as she had won it, causing other skaters to wonder if she just didn't care.

"I used to always quit skating," Thomas says, maneuvering in the passing lane. "I'd say, 'I quit this stupid sport!"' The Denver Rink is as Cold and Desolate as an airplane hangar. It has the peculiar odor of all ice arenas, an unpleasant mixture of gas fumes and cleaning fluid that settles into your hair and clothes. Skaters, who spend six to eight hours a day, winter and summer, inside these places, tend to carry the smell around with them.

At rinkside, Thomas's coach of ten years, a Scotsman named Alex McGowan, directs her to do a jump. He is a short man, about the same height as Debi is on skates, with tiny feet and a wiry mop of gray hair that makes him look like Larry of the Three Stooges. While most skaters switch coaches numerous times during their careers, Thomas has stuck it out with McGowan and become his first international competitor.

Though only five feet six inches tall and a slight 116 pounds, Thomas looks gigantic on the ice, with thighs as sturdy as a male ballet dancer's. She pumps down the rink, where she is being filmed by the networks, then arcs back toward the far end, which is clogged with a jungle of television apparatus. Her takeoff point for the jump is maybe a yard from a video camera; but just when it seems Thomas will abort because of the danger, she throws the jagged edge of her skate blade into the ice and is off into the air. A second later she lands just inches from the mass of tripods. A stunned cameraman gets a faceful of ice spray.

"That's right, Debi," someone yells from the sidelines. "Cut him off at the knees!"

A deadpan Thomas glides over to her coach. "I don't want to be here," she moans.

McGowan pays no heed. He sends her off to try another jump. "It's part of her personality," he says with a pronounced burr. "She'll say, 'The ice is too hard, the skates are too dull.' I say, 'Yeah, yeah, fine. Let's get on with it."'

"I think he gets a little antsy sometimes," says Thomas. "But I think we'll be okay as long as I keep my head screwed on."

DEBI THOMAS WAS BORN TWENTY YEARS AGO, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her parents moved soon afterward to Silicon Valley, in California, where they were divorced. Though Debi's father sent support payments, it was largely her mother, Janice, a computer programmer, and later her stepbrother, a high-school teacher, who footed Debi's hefty skating bills — about $25,000 a year.

The financial burden is lighter now, thanks in part to a change in amateur rules for Olympic hopefuls. Skaters can now cash in on their reputations as long as the proceeds are placed in a trust fund to be administered by the United States Figure Skating Association. They can draw on the fund for training expenses —coaches, ice time, equipment — but not for cars or living expenses. When Thomas signed with an agent at the International Management Group in New York, in the fall of 1986, she became the first skater to take advantage of the new rules. Since then, she's skated in commercials for Campbell's and Raytheon, and she receives financial support and cosmetics from Revlon.

This past fall, Thomas took a leave from Stanford and came to Boulder, Colorado, to prepare for the 1988 Winter Olympics, in Calgary, Alberta. The three sections of the women's competition will be spread over three days, beginning with compulsory figures (worth thirty percent of the total score), then the short program, which includes seven required elements (twenty percent) and finally, on the last evening, the four-minute long program (fifty percent).

Thomas, known primarily in the past as an athletic skater, has worked hard over this past summer and fall to strengthen the artistic side of her skating. In June, she asked the 1980 Olympic champion Robin Cousins to choreograph a long program to sections of Bizet's Carmen. With that finished, she called in dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov to help polish it. Standing on the ice in his street shoes at New York's Skyrink, Baryshnikov told Thomas to "think like a tiger . . . stalk the jumps . . . attack." And later, one of Baryshnikov's assistants, dancer George De La Pena, flew out to Colorado four times to help with lingering rough spots. Thomas has also been working diligently on her "secret weapon" -- two triple-revolution jumps in quick succession, something never accomplished by a top female skater. (Former Olympic champion Dorothy Hammill could complete only double revolutions in 1976.) The dramatic triple-toe-triple-toe, as the jump is called, will be the first move in Thomas's long program.

All of this is designed to give Thomas an edge over her East German archrival, the defending Olympic champion, Katarina Witt. The two women are panthers disguised in sequined dresses, gritty types who thrive on the roar of an audience and who skate better when they compete against each other. To her colleagues on the American team, Thomas's interest in the sport seems to be maintained by the chore of beating Katarina.

Seated beside Thomas on a bus full of skaters last spring, Witt turned to Thomas and admitted, in English, "I could never go to school and skate at the same time." To that, Thomas coolly replied, "Well, I could never just skate."

Little is known of Witt's private life. One-on-one interviews with the Western press are forbidden, although Witt once appeared on American television engulfed in furs, driving her Soviet-made Lada through her home town, Karl-Marx Stadt. Witt is also said to receive stipends for winning — a reported $8000 for the 1984 Olympics, which pales alongside the thousands or millions Thomas could earn as a professional after an Olympic win. But Witt's economic future is secure, even though she turned down a $4 million offer from an American ice show, calling it a "honky-tonk." Instead, she is taking acting lessons from the chief of the East German Acting Association. Like a modern-day Sonja Henie, Witt is being groomed to launch a new East German business venture, the export of feature films.

Witt staged her Olympic victory in Yugoslavia in a glittery red skating dress, which she now considers a good-luck charm. This amuses Thomas. "We're all waiting," she groans, "to see if Katarina will pull out that red dress again."

Thomas can be flippant about skating's traditions. For instance, after important performances the ice is usually showered with flowers carefully wrapped in cellophane so that petals won't fall on the ice and trip up the next competitor. "I like it when they throw something more useful," Thomas says, recalling a competition last year after which somebody tossed a box of Domino's pizza onto the rink.

THOMAS KNOWS WELL THAT FIGURE SKATING, traditionally a strong Olympic event for the U.S. in the postwar era, hasn't been won by an American woman since Dorothy Hamill prevailed in 1976. Moreover, Thomas knows that without an Olympic win, even top skaters fade quickly from public memory.

As devil-may-care as Thomas has been over the last few years, a noticeable change of attitude has occurred since last spring. She has turned serious. And now the pall of the Olympics — of the fifteen minutes that could guarantee her future fame and financial security — is eating away at her peace of mind.

There is a term for this — "the Olympic syndrome" — and though most athletes experience it, few are willing to openly admit to it. They struggle with it in private. Thomas, on the other hand, is so consumed that she can speak of little else.

"It's like night and day, this year compared to last," she says, slurping a chocolate milkshake with whipped cream at the Red Robin Burger and Spirits Emporium, a Boulder hamburger joint. Besides training, Thomas is taking a few classes at the University of Colorado's Boulder campus -- including German, Witt's native tongue ("I feel if she can learn English," says Thomas, "I can learn German"). The classes are basically diversions, since it's unlikely Stanford will accept the credits.

"I really want it over with," says Thomas, digging into a plate of fajitas. "I don't care if I win or lose -- not that I don't care -- but it depends on how I lose. If I give it away, I'll be mad. My biggest fear is that I'll go out there and be a head case.

"It's crazy," she continues, scooping up everything on her plate. "For four minutes of paradise [the long program], you've gone through years and years of training and all the ups and downs." She pushes her empty glass away and pulls at her hair. "Last week I thought I was going to throw myself through the glass windows at the rink."

When skaters blow up on the ice, they kick and prod the ice with the ends of their blades, something that makes them unpopular with the maintenance men. Thomas doesn't stop there. During practices —which are often filmed by the networks and aired before competitions — she throws sweaters and curses. Surprised television audiences, used to the caressing whispers of the commentator and former skater Dick Button, are starting to enjoy this newer, less pretty side of a pretty sport.

"I wanted to plant my head through the glass," Thomas mutters. "But knowing my luck lately, I probably would've even screwed that up."

Regardless of the gloomy soliloquy, Thomas is now skating better than ever, easily landing jumps she had little success with last year. Her afternoon practices, held during public sessions, draw many young men off the racquetball courts to sit in the bleachers and watch the resident Olympian at work.

WHEN THOMAS WAS FOUR, her Mother took her to see the Ice Follies. Young Thomas was not impressed by the grace of the ex-champions but by the antics of the company clown, Mr. Frick, the human rubber band, the king of trick skating. His ice doodles aroused her interest in the sport.

Thomas enrolled in lessons at age five, then signed with McGowan at the Redwood Ice Skating Lodge, in Redwood City, California. "When Debi first came to me, I never thought she'd be a world champion," says McGowan. "The odds against her doing it were astronomical. If someone then said, 'I can foresee the future — in eight years this is a world champion,' I would have said, 'Oh, yeah, yeah,'"

By age fourteen, Thomas had passed the required figure tests of the United States Figure Skating Association, evaluated by three judges who measure, poke at and scuffle over the figure-eight tracings left on clean ice. The figures must be perfectly round, proportioned to the size of the skater and repeated three times -- with all the tracings so closely aligned that it looks like they were made only once. In this phase of the competition, worth almost a third of the total score, Thomas is usually notches above Katarina Witt.

BEFORE RACING ACROSS DENVER FOR A LIVE RADIO INTERVIEW, Thomas asks a member of her entourage to buy her peanut M&M's from a vending machine. Munching these in the Toyota, she rolls around a corner, and the Fuzzbuster starts flashing. "Oh, it's nothing," she says with a laugh. "The radio waves bouncing off the buildings set it off."

Radio station KOA is high above Denver in a new glass building. Ushered into the green room, Thomas picks up the phone and, to raised eyebrows, dials another radio station and starts doing an interview she missed a half-hour ago. A harried KOA host, muttering that he will be fired if anyone finds out, is ignored.

"Am I on a diet?" she says into the phone. "No, I wouldn't say so."

A couple of questions later she hangs up and strolls into the KOA booth for interview number 2, reaching immediately into a box of cookies on the table. A few minutes into it, the interviewer prepares to make an on-air phone call, which Thomas asked be placed when she arrived at the station. He dials a local number.

"Hello," says Thomas. "I would like to order a vegetarian pizza with sausage. . . ."

UNTIL THIS YEAR, THOMAS HAD quietly ruled out the course taken by most professional skaters. "Doing pro competitions doesn't fit into my plans," she'd said, leading one to believe there would be no ice shows with the Smurfs for this girl. Yet another reality has dawned on her: "This is the Olympics, there's money involved," she says. Thomas now plans to appear in an ice show while she's finishing her bachelor's degree in medical microbiology. As the former Olympian Scott Hamilton told her, "You do a show for one year, and you never have to worry about money again."

Thomas, who intends to be an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, will need the cash to start the athletic-training center of her dreams, a place where young athletes will not be told they can't skate and go to school at the same time. Rather, they will be encouraged to pursue careers in addition to their sport. "Now if someone says, 'I want to be an architect,"' she says, "he is told, 'You can't, because you're training for skating.' I would say, 'You do? Well, here are five people you can talk to.' It will be a place with intelligent athletes. People will say, 'What? Intelligent athletes?' "

TWO HOURS OF DRIVING TIME SOUTH of Boulder is the center of the American skating scene, Colorado Springs. There, coach Carlo Fassi runs a factory of champions at the old Broadmoor World Arena. Fassi is a former topflight skater from Italy, and his impressive coaching résumé includes four Olympic champions. In 1976, his students Dorothy Hamill and John Curry swept the Olympic singles events. Now two of his charges, Caryn Kadavy and Jill Trenary, are poised as Thomas's stiffest competition next to Witt.

A nineteen-year-old newcomer to international competition, Trenary cut her calf so severely in a skating accident a few years ago that it seemed unlikely she would recover enough to compete again. Yet she did, and last year she skated a near-perfect long program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and succeeded in toppling Thomas from her throne. (Thomas had won the national title in 1986.) But later, at the World Championships, Trenary bungled one figure so badly (she was five whole inches off the center of one tracing) that she was lucky to end up in seventh place.

Kadavy, whose mother is a former ballet dancer, has trouble controlling her nerves. Yet when she skates well, her grace and long, lean lines are compared enthusiastically to those of Peggy Fleming. Though she has never beaten Thomas, last year at the World Championships she captured the bronze, right behind Thomas's silver.

The proximity of all three of America's top female skating hopes within a 100-mile Rocky Mountain radius has sent the local press nuts, declaring Colorado the skating capital of the world. What they don't say is that Thomas came here under duress, because the Redwood Ice Lodge closed down, rather inopportunely, just before this Olympic season. The rink's liability insurance had been canceled, and McGowan's partners felt that operating with no protection was too risky.

With the rink boarded up, McGowan told his students to find other instruction and then moved to Boulder with Thomas. There, away from Stanford, home and friends, Thomas got serious about the Olympics. The effort has paid off so far: in early January, as a warm-up to Calgary, she recaptured her national title, beating both Trenary and Kadavy in all three phases of the competition.

Scott Hamilton, who screeched with excitement when he delivered the CBS play-by-play for Thomas's performance at last year's World Championships, assesses her chances at Calgary this way: "Last year she had the championship, but she let it slip away. She has an opportunity, because she's stronger in figures. If she does solid figures and short program, it's pretty much in her hands."

Mr. Frick will also be at the Olympics, which is not so unusual. Now in his eighties and retired, old Mr. Frick regularly attends Thomas's performances. He makes his way down to the ice after she skates to personally hand her, not a Domino's pizza, but the traditional bouquet of flowers.