Debi Thomas: cool new American ice champ

DEBI Thomas is a Tinker Bell-on-ice, flitting effortlessly across the arena, flinging fairy dust with each sweep of her arm, captivating the crowd. Miss Thomas, America's new queen of the ice, knows firsthand about that magical bond between skater and audience. To her surprise and delight, it developed last month when she won the women's title at the United States Figure Skating Championships. And she hopes it will happen again when she competes in the world championships in Geneva, beginning March 17.

But Debi knows about a lot more than fairy dust and spotlights. She also knows something about chemistry, calculus, and Dante's ``Divine Comedy,'' which she is studying this semester at Stanford University.

Debi is the first female champion in 30 years to be concurrently attending college, and coach Alex McGowan clearly does not savor having to compete for her attention.

``I should be No. 1 with her time, and I'm not getting that now,'' he says with a sideways glance at Debi, who just rolls her eyes.

Even off the ice, Debi cuts quite a figure -- poised, forthright, and athletically feminine in a lilac unitard, fuzzy gray leg warmers, and a pink ski sweater.

``I've got this thing with skating and school -- to see how much I can accomplish,'' she says. The discipline of going to school, she adds, helps her keep skating in perspective. ``I didn't feel, like, if you don't win this [competition] your life is over.''

But the rigors of training six hours a day and studying far into the night take their toll. ``Anybody mind if I sleep?'' she jokes, explaining that she's been cramming for midterm exams.

Last fall, the Stanford freshman went as far as to decide that her premed program and the skating were just too much.

She ripped up her application form for the US championships -- and stopped skating.

But not for long. Within two months she was back on the ice, thanks to coach McGowan, her mother's support, and her own spunk. They taped the application form back together, and on Feb. 8 Debi became the new national champion.

Still, she is matter-of-fact about her achievements, especially her status as the first black skater to become a national champion.

Her goal, Debi says, is to be the best skater in the US, not the best black skater.

``There are reasons there weren't black national champions before,'' she says.

``It's an expensive sport, and then -- well, my mom wasn't even allowed in rinks when she was young. We're behind and trying to catch up. I just happened to be the first.''

During the national competition, it was the audience that brought out the best in Debi, McGowan says. The crowd had been watching during her warm-up when three times she attempted a triple jump, and three times she fell.

So when Debi landed the first triple of her program, the audience roared its support.

``The crowd knew she was trying the most difficult program'' in the competition, he says.

Debi recalls: ``I heard this huge roar and I thought, `Wow, they want me to win.''

She had expected defending champion Tiffany Chin to be the favorite.

Miss Chin, who was below peak form after a period of physical rehabilitation, finished third behind Caryn Kadavy, but is expected to be a more formidable opponent at Geneva.

``I like to perform -- the more people the better. . . . I get fired up and put more into it,'' Debi says. The daily, solitary practice sessions are much harder, she adds.

Even a gaggle of reporters, who recently showed up at the Redwood City Ice Lodge to interview Debi, seemed to provide ample motivation.

Urged to demonstrate part of her freestyle program, she picked her way across the rink and settled into an elegant curtsy.

Then, to the first strains of the ``Meditation'' from Jules Massenet's opera ``Tha"is,'' Debi broke her pose with a flutter of her arm -- and moments later was twirling in midair, landing on one skate with nary a wobble.

``Wow! One [triple jump] was better than the one I did in nationals,'' she said, her braces gleaming. ``I'm inspired because there are people here.''

Although just 18, Debi is a 13-year veteran of skating. She had a slow climb up the ladder of success in America. Ranked only 13th in the US when she won her first international competition, she went on to win four more international contests before becoming the top-ranked skater at home.

``She interrupted the pecking order'' set up by the skating establishment, McGowan says, adding that ``no one knew what to do with this kid'' when she started winning events overseas.

It's been a long haul for Debi and her family -- full of emotional ups and downs, financial difficulties, and doubts about whether all the sacrifice would ever pay off. But Janice Thomas, Debi's mother, says she is ``not one who believes that you can give up. . . . You can't just stop at the first barrier you run into.''

Because it costs between $30,000 and $50,000 a year to train a top-caliber skater, ``Debi has had to do with less than most skaters,'' Mrs. Thomas says. Her daughter has owned only five pairs of custom-made boots during her skating career and goes without lessons a few months every year, explains Mrs. Thomas, ``while I catch up on whatever debt has mounted up.''

Like many other teen-agers, Debi has a penchant for sausage-pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza (``in large quantities''), favors songs by rock musician Phil Collins, and is apt to let phrases like ``totally awesome'' slip into her conversation.

But until she returns from the world championships after March 25, there will probably be no pizza and not much time for Phil Collins. Instead, she'll be focusing on skating -- her school figures, her programs, and her triple jumps.

In Geneva, the one to beat will be East Germany's Katarina Witt, who won both the Olympic and world championships in 1984, repeated as world titlist in 1985, and is trying to become the first female skater since Peggy Fleming to capture three consecutive world titles. Debi thinks she can win the title, ``but I have to go out there and do what I can do.''

The real test, she says, will be the long freestyle program, the final phase of the competition.

``I've never let down the United States,'' Debi says determinedly.

Maybe that's because she just never lets up.

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