Debi Thomas: Blade Runner
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).