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Winter Olympics: Calgary : THERE'S NO DOUBTING THOMAS : Young and Gifted, She Wants Normal Life and Gold Medal

February 11, 1988|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

The spotlight shines for Wanda Beazel, but she is not there to bask in it. Only 10-years-old, her ice show debut is off to a clumsy beginning.

She trips while making her entrance and, arms flapping, tries to regain her balance while stumbling toward the center of the ice. Upon her arrival, the spotlight finally settles on her, and she composes herself. Her music, the stirring "Saber Dance," begins.

All set? Not quite. Her fluorescent yellow tutu, which was in its normal position around her waist when she started, has climbed to her chest, and her bubble, literally, has burst, covering her face with bubble gum.

For the next 3 1/2 minutes, Wanda lives every young figure skater's nightmare. She forgets her routine, appears stuck to the ice on jumps and cannot remember how to apply the brakes, her momentum at one point carrying her over the sideboard and into the audience. It is a performance that only Wanda's mother could love.

Because it actually is Debi Thomas bumbling about the ice, audiences at exhibitions from Tacoma, Wash., to Moscow have been delighted by her Wanda. They laugh at her and then cheer for her, exactly the response she hoped one day to evoke when she was 3 1/2 and saw the rubber-legged Mr. Frick perform for the Ice Follies.

But Wanda is special to Thomas for another reason, reminding her that she is not that far removed from the awkward 10-year-old who failed miserably to make a good first impression on her imperious, Scottish-born, coach-to-be with the Harpo Marx hair, Alex McGowan.

His Redwood City ice rink was about halfway between San Francisco and Thomas' home in San Jose. He took one look at Thomas' crude school figures and determined that her mother was wasting her money and his time.

Two U.S. national championships and one world championship later, McGowan would not say the last 10 years have been misspent. In another 16 days, on the final day of figure skating competition at the Winter Olympics, Thomas, 20, is a solid favorite to be standing on the victory stand in Calgary with a medal around her neck. It could be gold.

Yet, Thomas is as unpretentious today as she was at 13, when she decided that her pursuit to become an extraordinary skater should not interfere with an otherwise ordinary life. If you need evidence that she has succeeded, listen to her speak. It's like, you know, totally Valley.

Rejecting tutors and correspondence courses that serve as education for many elite skaters, she went to a public high school, graduated in 1985 with grades acceptable to Stanford, moved into a dorm, joined a co-educational fraternity and established her reputation as the campus clown.

Even after she had won the 1986 world championship, many of her classmates were unaware that she was a figure skater. To them, she might as well have been Wanda Beazel.

But if any of them still did not know in her sophomore year, she probably gave it away when she went on national television in prime time after the 1987 World Championships and dedicated a song to her friends at Stanford and sang the chorus to "Louie, Louie."

Since last July, while concentrating on the Olympics, she has been training in the higher altitude of Boulder, Colo., and attending classes at the University of Colorado. She took a weekend off last November and returned to Palo Alto for the Big Game, Stanford's annual football grudge match against Cal Berkeley. She spent the weekend in the dorm with her former roommates, sleeping on the floor.

"Other skaters say their social lives got wiped out," she said a short time later while in Los Angeles to to conduct a children's skating clinic. " Mine didn't. I refused to let that happen. I was going to be normal, regardless."

Although Thomas may be a normal college junior, her story is anything but normal for a world-class figure skater. For example, that she is in college at all distinguishes her not only from most of her contemporaries but from most of those who came before her. Not since Tenley Albright graduated from Radcliffe 30 years ago has a U.S. champion been enrolled in college. Like Albright, Thomas wants to be a doctor. Her major is medical microbiology.

Also, unlike many of her contemporaries, Thomas was not born wearing silver skates. One year, for school figures, she wore a pair of second-hand black roller skates that had been converted to ice skates. Her mother, twice divorced, makes about $35,000 a year as a computer programmer-analyst. She estimates that Thomas' skating costs $25,000 a year and that her Stanford education costs $16,000 a year. They manage on various grants and loans, and through contributions from Thomas' father, who is a program manager at a computer company in Santa Clara; her half-brother, who is a high school math teacher in San Jose, and her grandparents.

Then, there is the obvious. In 1986, Thomas became the first black figure skater to win a U.S. senior championship, and two months later, for an encore, became the first black to win a world championship.

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