Thomas Has Fallen Upon Hard Times : Spotlight Moves Off ‘86 World Champion as Witt Woos the Fans

Times Staff Writer

When we left Debi Thomas, she had fallen on her axel at the U.S. figure skating meet and lost her title.

Since that gray, February day in Tacoma, she has fallen upon even harder times.

She hasn’t been able to ignore the pain in her Achilles’ tendons, which has gotten so bad that she can’t walk upstairs. She has, however, ignored her studies at Stanford, where she is a sophomore microbiology major. She thinks finals were this week, but she’s not sure.

Anything else? Oh, yes, the Redwood City rink where she trains has been closed because the owners, among them her coach, Alex McGowan, could not pay the insurance premiums.

What’s more, Thomas came to Cincinnati this week to defend the world championship she won last year and found herself having to match toe-loops, salchows and sequins with the wicked witch of the East Bloc.

That’s East Germany’s Katarina Witt, who actually is neither wicked nor a witch.


But McGowan would like us to believe that Witt has not been minding her manners this week in Cin City.

Witt, who won the title in 1984 and 1985, has been smiling at audiences, even waving to them after her practices. One day she went into the stands and signed autographs for 20 minutes, acting as if she enjoyed it.

McGowan, of course, protested, accusing Witt of intentional friendliness.

“She did something she’s never done before, and skaters don’t do it in practice, which is called milking the audience,” McGowan told the Cincinnati Post. “It’s sort of a no-no among the skaters during practice.

“If the American audiences fall for this--it’s planned, not spontaneous--and switch their support over to her, it can lift her to a high performance.”

Witt’s coach, Jutta Mueller, defended her pupil’s honor.

“Katarina doesn’t need to draw the public to her side by any other means,” she said. “She does it with her skating. Part of that is, when your public claps, you thank them by bowing to them.”

But Witt has revealed that the dirty tricks will continue tonight at Riverfront Coliseum, when she skates her long program to “West Side Story,” music she said she chose especially for the American audience.

U.S. champion Brian Boitano noted last week that he and his foremost competitors, Canada’s Brian Orser and the Soviet Union’s Alexandr Fadeev, get along famously.

That’s hardly the case with the women, whose temperaments might be better suited for kick boxing.

The two Americans here besides Thomas, Caryn Kadavy and recently crowned U.S. champion Jill Trenary, train at the same time, in the same rink, under the same coach, but barely acknowledge the presence of one another.

“The women are ruthless,” Boitano said.

Witt sounded anything but ruthless after her short program Thursday, when she overcame her fifth-place finish of the previous day in the compulsory figures and moved into second in the overall standings behind the Soviet Union’s Kira Ivanova.

Witt, who seldom loses a freestyle competition, is favored to move ahead of Ivanova after tonight’s long program.

Thomas, meanwhile, fell on one of her required elements, the double axel, in the short program, slipped to third in the overall standings and is in danger of finishing out of the medals.

“I’m sorry she fell,” Witt said, sounding sincere. “I like to skate when everyone is good, so the judges can decide.”

Witt began the interview with an interpreter but quickly brushed her aside and began speaking in nearly perfect English.

“It was difficult,” she said of her short program, which she skated to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”

“I know I can’t do any mistakes because I came from behind,” she said. “I had to do all my jumps good. I was nervous. Everyone could see that at the beginning.

“It’s not easy to skate because I know the crowd was for American skaters. But I found the crowd fair. I like to skate in America. The crowds are very enthusiastic. I need that.”

Witt, 21, has received as much attention for her Brooke Shields looks as for her skating. A Cincinnati columnist this week offered to defect to East Germany if she would have him.

After Witt won the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, she received 35,000 fan letters, so many that the only place in her Karl-Marx Stadt home that could hold them all was the bathtub.

Witt is training to become an actress, a career she almost started after winning her second straight world championship in 1985.

But her competitive spirit was rekindled after she lost last year in Geneva to Thomas.

“I have decided I will continue skating until I get the title back,” she said.

Perhaps beyond.

She said this week that she will compete in Calgary’s 1988 Winter Games, attempting to become the first woman singles skater since Norway’s Sonja Henie to win consecutive Olympic gold medals.

As for Thomas, she finally received some good news Thursday.

McGowan called reporters together after the short program to announce that Donald Trump, New York City real estate mogul, called--"from an airplane somewhere"--and said he would pick up the insurance premiums on the Redwood City Ice Lodge.

McGowan said he can reopen the rink if he can find additional financing. His partners have pulled out. He has another call in to Ronald Perelman, Revlon’s chief executive officer.

But first things first. Thomas has to skate here for one more day.

“If I really want to win the championship, I’m going to have to stop thinking about my injuries,” she said. “I have to psych myself up for an amazing performance.”

She was in so much pain at the national meet last month that she eliminated two of the five triple jumps from her long program.

“I’ve got no choice but to do all five here,” she said. “I’m going to need a miracle performance.”

McGowan nodded.

“No choice,” he said. “You’ve just got to go out and do a Pete Rose-type performance.”

Since he’s in Cincinnati, spending much of his time in an arena that’s on Pete Rose Way, do you think McGowan might have been playing to his audience?