DENVER — A Debi Thomas that never has been seen before at the national championships, one who is almost as artistic as she is athletic, emerged Saturday night at McNichols Arena, where she regained the title she lost a year ago.
And when this year's national figure skating championships were over, and she was standing on the highest level of the victory stand, she even cried.
"I was OK as the national champion," said Thomas, who is from San Jose. "But when they played the Olympic theme, I lost it. That's when it hit me what it all means."
What it means is that Thomas, 20, will enter the Winter Olympics Feb. 13-28 at Calgary, Canada, in the best possible position to compete with the 1984 Olympic champion, East Germany's Katarina Witt. In a startling upset, Thomas beat Witt for the 1986 world championship. But after finishing second to Jill Trenary of Minnetonka, Minn., in the nationals last year, Thomas finished second to Witt in the world championships.
Thomas' victory here, however, does not necessarily mean that she will be the only skater from this national championships to challenge Witt as the United States has its most accomplished women's Olympic team since 1956, when Tenely Albright and Carol Heiss finished first and second.
"If I can compete against Debi, I can compete against Katarina," said Trenary, 19, who finished second to Thomas. Joining them in Calgary will be Caryn Kadavy, 20, of Erie, Pa. Kadavy also was third at the nationals last year before finishing third in the world. The first alternate is Jeri Campbell, 17, who is from Garden City, Mich., but trains in Torrance. Other Olympic team members determined Saturday were the three pairs teams. Jill Watson of Bloomington, Ind., and Peter Oppegard of Knoxville, Tenn., third in the world last year, defended their championship, beating second-place Gillian Wachsman of Greenwich, Conn., and Todd Waggoner of Schaumberg, Ill., and the third-place brother-sister team of Natalie and Wayne Seybold of Marion, Ind.
Skating their long programs before a capacity crowd of 15,869, the women were entertaining but not brilliant. Unlike the men, who were disappointing in their long programs Friday night, the women could not blame their difficulties on the high altitude of Denver. Thomas is taking time off from her pre-med studies at Stanford to train at the University of Colorado in Boulder, while Trenary and Kadavy both train at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.
Trenary, for one, was cautious. Entering the long program in third place, she skated as if she simply wanted to secure her place on the Olympic team. She doubled out of the triple flip that won the championship for her last year and completed only four triple jumps.
"She's better than she was last year," said Carlo Fassi, who coaches Trenary and Kadavy. "She doesn't just run from one spot to another. Her triple flips are more consistent. But, for some reason, she didn't do it today."
Trenary rationalized. "It's best not to leave your best performance here," she said. "You have something to build on."
For all practical purposes, Thomas, skating after Trenary, won the long program by cleanly hitting her difficult triple toe loop, triple toe loop combination. After that, she doubled out of a triple salchow and completed only two more triples.
Asked if it were one of her best performances, she said: "Nah. I got pretty tired at the end and was thinking, 'I hope I can just stand up.' "
If Kadavy could have stood up, she might have won.
Second after the compulsory figures and the short program, the title was hers for the taking if she could have followed Thomas with an exceptional performance. It was far from that. She fell on a triple loop 24 seconds into her program and never recovered, completing only three triple jumps.
Kadavy, a former ballerina's daughter, remains the most artistic of the U.S. skaters, but Thomas has improved tremendously in that area, thanks largely to her choreographers, former Olympic champion Robin Cousins and George de la Pena of the American Ballet Theatre.
"They've gotten me to open up," said Thomas of Cousins and de la Pena, who was referred to her by Mikhail Baryshnikov. "I used to just think, 'Jump, jump, jump.' "
Thomas skated her long program to Bizet's Carmen.
"What we've been working on with Debi is getting her true emotions out and visible," de la Pena said. "You don't learn dance overnight, you don't learn interpretation overnight. But, so far, it's working."
Still, the advantage that Thomas has over the other U.S. women is her competitiveness.
"Thomas is a fighter," Fassi said. "I don't think she gives a damn what anybody else does on the ice. That is a very nice quality for a skater."
After her performance Saturday night, champion Debi Thomas was presented with a football jersey from her favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers. Thomas used to train in Redwood City, about five minutes from the 49ers' training facility. "Give 'em hell," the card from the 49ers said. Runner-up Jill Trenary, who is from a Minneapolis suburb, got some satisfaction by pointing out to Thomas that the 49ers lost to the Vikings Saturday.
There were many complaints about the organization of this year's championships, particularly because of the schedule that had skaters competing until late in the evening. "This organization was the worst ever," Carlo Fassi said. "It was a disaster. The skaters were walking around like zombies." . . . In the final competition of the championships, the junior men's, Christopher Mitchell, 17, of Rolling Hills was first, Aren Nielsen of Grandview, Mo., second and Cameron Birky, 17, of Danville, Calif., third.