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THE NIGHT WHEN IT ALL SLIPPED AWAY : A Year Ago, Debi Thomas Didn't Skate, or Behave, Like a Champion

February 26, 1989|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

If ever the word champion fit a figure skater, it was Debi Thomas. We are not speaking here solely of the titles--U.S. champion in 1986 and 1988, world champion in 1986--that she won. Many skaters have won titles, but Thomas was unique.

As the first black skater to achieve international, or even national, prominence, she was a champion, however reluctant, of minorities. Even though she said that she wanted to be known as a skater, not as a black skater, she could not deny that she felt responsibility as a role model.

She was a champion of the underprivileged, which she did not mind so much because it allowed her mother to take some credit. In figure skating, the underprivileged are all those whose parents earn less than six figures each year. Thomas' mother, divorced when Debi was a small child, earned considerably less than that as a computer programming analyst in Sunnyvale, Calif. But she sacrificed whatever she had to assure that her daughter could pursue her goals.

And Thomas was a champion of those who believe that skaters should leave the sport with knowledge of something other than camel spins and triple-toe loops. A pre-med student at Stanford, she was the first U.S. champion since Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic champion, to combine serious academic pursuits with skating.

Yet, almost a year ago to this day, on the next-to-last night of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, Thomas, by her own admission, neither skated nor behaved like a champion.

As for the skating, everyone, except perhaps Thomas, could forgive that. The gold medal within her grasp, needing only good, not great, scores to win the long program at the Olympic Saddledome and finish ahead of defending champion Katarina Witt of East Germany and Elizabeth Manley of Canada, Thomas gave a disappointing performance and finished third. As anyone who follows sports realizes, that sometimes happens.

Less forgivable was the fact that Thomas, whose greatest attribute besides her athleticism was her competitiveness, all but quit on the ice, going through the motions after it became apparent to her that she was not at her best.

Then, on the podium for the awards ceremony, she ignored the rules of sportsmanship, failing to acknowledge Witt, the gold medalist, and Manley, the silver medalist, even when they tried to congratulate her for winning the bronze medal. Afterward, at a press conference, she did not take responsibility for her failure to win, instead blaming her coach of 10 years.

It was a fall greater than any she had ever taken on the ice, this fall from grace.

In the year since, Thomas, 21, has developed a less than flattering reputation within the figure skating world. People who have organized various shows in which she has performed, and those who have publicized them, and even some of the other skaters, say that she is demanding and temperamental, as if, they say, she expects to be treated as the gold medalist that she never became.

If so, that is a side of her that she does not reveal publicly. At a Baltimore press conference recently during the national championships, the first she has attended as a spectator, she was the same Debi Thomas that she has always been in such situations: intelligent, witty and candid.

Most of the questions were about that night at Calgary. She answered all of them. There were no apologies, just explanations. Take them or leave them.

She admitted that she gave up during her performance, saying that she lost her motivation only seconds into her routine when she failed to complete her most difficult trick, consecutive triple jumps. That is so technically difficult that no other woman even attempted that in her long program.

Months before the Olympics, Thomas debated whether she should try it so soon into her routine. If she hit it, it would inspire her. But if she missed it, it might set the tone for the rest of her four-minute performance. She finally decided that even if she missed, she would have plenty of time to recover. As it turned out, after landing on both feet after the second triple jump, she did not care whether she recovered.

"People said that I could have come back from that triple-triple combination," she said. "But those people don't understand who I am. I wanted to give the performance of my life. When I missed the combination, I was deflated. I might have come back and won, but that's not the way I wanted to win it."

She again blamed her coach, Alex McGowan, saying that he distracted her with his remarks before she went onto the ice. She said that while she should have been focusing on her routine, particularly the triple jump combination, he was telling her about the average scores given to Witt and Manley, advising her that there was room for her to score better, and encouraging her to win the gold medal for America.

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