Winter Olympics: Calgary : THERE’S NO DOUBTING THOMAS : Young and Gifted, She Wants Normal Life and Gold Medal
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.
Asked countless times since to describe the feeling, she invariably answers that it is nothing special, a response that chills her mother. Janice Thomas said she wonders if she was too efficient at shielding her daughter from some of life’s harsher realities.
“I just look at myself as a skater who had to go through the same things that skaters before me had to go through,” Debi said. “Why should my championships be different from anyone else’s?”
But her championships are different, and that she had to overcome so much adversity to achieve them has turned her into one of the grittiest competitors the sport has ever seen. Or did the grit come first, perhaps a genetic gift from her paratrooper father, enabling her to overcome the adversity so that she could win the championships? That is a question for psychologists, not third-year microbiology students.
Before competition, she talks freely about her fear of failure and the battles she has with her nerves.
“She has worries and is fairly up-front about them,” her mother said.
But Thomas says her doubts disappear when it is her turn to skate and the adrenaline begins flowing. On her application to Stanford, she was asked to describe herself. She did it in a word. Invincible . That, she says, is the feeling she has when she steps onto the ice.
It does not guarantee her victory, but it does guarantee that she will not beat herself. In figure skating, that often is more than half the battle. Last year, she had tendinitis in both ankles, so painful that it prevented her from walking upstairs. She gained 19 pounds and struggled to make passing grades at Stanford.
Physically and mentally drained, she lost her national title, finishing second to Jill Trenary in Tacoma. Three months later, arriving in Cincinnati for the World Championships, she felt she had something to prove.
If it had not been for the equally determined Katarina Witt (Vit) of East Germany, Thomas would have won again. Despite her throbbing ankles, Thomas skated her freestyle long program better than she had in almost a year.
Then, in front of a U.S. crowd that was still aroused by Thomas’ performance, Witt skated a long program from West Side Story that was close to perfection. Respected Coach Carlo Fassi said he never has seen a woman skate better, not even his former Olympic champions, Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.
That enabled Witt to avenge her only loss in major international competition since 1983. Thomas finished second.
“The girl is amazing,” Thomas said of Witt, 22, who also won world championships in 1984 and 1985. “You never sit there and say, ‘I might win because Katarina might mess up.’ That won’t happen.
“I mean, you have to think she’s going to do everything. You have to think, ‘What do I have to do to beat her?’ She’s very strong willed. She’s very under control. I mean, she’s a lot like me.”
That may be true in substance but not in style. Thomas, the better athlete, would be favored in a 100-meter dash. Witt, the artist, would appear more graceful crossing the finish line. In figure skating, neatness counts.
That is not to say that Thomas is a klutz or that Witt is a wimp, but each excels in a different area. Thus, the winner in Calgary will be the one who better combines the two elements, athleticism and artistry.
The experts believe it will be Witt, which would give her a second Olympic gold medal to go with the one she earned four years ago in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. No individual woman has repeated as Olympic champion since Norway’s Sonja Henie, gold medalist in 1928, 1932 and 1936.
“Katarina comes across as a real lady on the ice, very feminine,” said Fleming, an ABC commentator, during the U.S. meet last month in Denver. “She has a real charisma with the audience. She’s very likable, and it comes across to everyone. I think Katarina has a few more feminine qualities than Debi.”
Sensitive to that sort of observation, Thomas, who has been reluctant to use choreographers in the past, began getting instruction last year from former Olympic men’s champion Robin Cousins of Great Britain in arranging her freestyle programs. She also spent an hour in New York last August with the American Ballet Theatre’s Mikhail Baryshnikov, who later asked one of his choreographers, George de la Pena of Spain, to work with Thomas on her long program.
“George has gotten me to open up on the ice, rather than just going from jump to jump to jump,” she said. “He worked a miracle with me.”
Thomas decided last summer to skate her long program to music from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” later discovering that Witt has chosen music from the same opera for her long program.
“I heard it from a friend of mine, who’s a Hungarian ice dancer,” Thomas said. “He said he had seen Katarina in Karl Marx Stadt (East Germany) and asked me if it was too late to change mine. I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m not changing it.’ I’m not concerned that the judges will be turned off by the second skater who performs to that music. Katarina and I have very different interpretations. The judges will see two different Carmens.”
The original Carmen, a femme fatale, persuades her lover, Don Jose, an army corporal, to join Gypsy smugglers and then deserts him for a torero, Escamillo. Carmen dies tragically when Don Jose returns and kills her.
Explaining the difference in her Carmen and Witt’s, Thomas said, “She dies, and I don’t.”
Witt’s Carmen is more traditional, telling the story. Thomas’ Carmen concentrates on the character.
“There are many sides to Carmen,” de la Pena said in Denver. “We want to bring out the fearless, dangerous, exciting part of Carmen, the parts we love about her, the parts we wish we all had, the abandon.”
Yet, Thomas’ long program, for all of its dramatic interpretation, still turns on an in-your-face triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination within the first 15 seconds.
“If you do something like a triple-triple early, then the judges are excited from the very beginning,” she said. “All you have to do is maintain that. If I hit that first jump, I’ll be on a roll.”
Until then, Thomas said, she believes the pressure will be on her.
“I’ve been a nervous wreck a lot of the time,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, the Olympics! Oh my God, my last year!’ I want to skate perfect. It’s really hard to deal with. This game is 95% mental.
“Of course, the Olympics is the thing you dream about. Sometimes, I get mad and say, ‘It’s just a stupid competition and you’re letting it control your life.’ But it does. It’s something incredible.”
As a concession to the Olympics, Thomas has given skating the priority over her education this year, something her coach, McGowan, and others in the sport have been trying to persuade her to do for years.
“Nobody said, ‘You can’t go to school,’ but they gave me a hard time about it,” she said. “Mr. McGowan didn’t want to sound like he was anti-school, but sometimes he made it harder than it had to be by not accepting it. We’ve had all kinds of ups and downs.”
She tried it McGowan’s way when she was 13, taking her eighth grade classes by correspondence. After finishing second in the novice division at the national competition the year before, he believed she could win the junior national title if she concentrated less on education.
But not only did she feel cheated out of a year of school, she also failed to advance beyond the sectional qualifying for Bay Area juniors. The next year, she enrolled in San Mateo High School.
“I was really upset, and I wanted to quit skating and everything,” she said. “But then I realized that it wasn’t skating that I hated. It was that correspondence junk. I was smart enough at 13 to say, ‘There’s no way I’m not going back to school.’ Had that not happened, I may not be so much into school as I am now.”
She said she misses Stanford and looks forward to returning in the fall, but she had little choice but to leave after McGowan’s rink closed last May. No longer able to afford the liability insurance, he tried to enlist Donald Trump, New York real estate baron, and Ronald Perelman, chairman and chief executive officer of Revlon, Inc., as partners, but neither wanted an interest in a Redwood City ice rink.
Suddenly unemployed, he accepted when the University of Colorado offered him use of its rink. With no other place to train, and, for the first time, feeling overburdened by her class work, Thomas followed him to Boulder.
“Last year, I tried to do too much,” she said. “I felt like I had to do everything that the other pre-meds were doing. I didn’t want people to think that I really wasn’t doing anything but skating. That was kind of dumb. I’ve learned it’s not the end of the world if I’m a little behind. I know I can always go back and finish, so I’m a little more at ease.”
The move seems to have agreed with her. Taking an early look at Calgary’s Olympic Saddledome, site of the Olympic figure skating competition, she won Skate Canada in late October, and, nine weeks later, regained her national title in Denver.
Besides, she still has time to take three courses at the University of Colorado, including beginning German. Debi does Deutsch. “I want to surprise Katarina,” she said.
McGowan said he believes she will, but not only with her German. “I’ve never seen Debi skate with more confidence than she has this year,” he said.
Janice Thomas took her daughter when she was 10 to see McGowan. It was not her idea.
“I saw this little kid with curly Shirley Temple hair, and I just fell in love,” one of McGowan’s former business partners, Janet Signorello, told Women’s Sports and Fitness magazine in 1985. “I told her mom she was being wasted, that she could be training with Mr. McGowan. Janice was horrified. She said she couldn’t afford him. Well, I told her she couldn’t afford not to.”
Janice said in a recent telephone interview from her Sunnyvale, Calif., office that she wanted to expose Debi to as many experiences as possible. A former dance teacher in her hometown of Wichita, Kan., Janice enrolled her in ballet, tap and modern jazz dance lessons.
She took Debi to her first rock concert when she was 3 years old to see Sly & the Family Stone. She also took her to the opera. Debi learned to play the flute, later switching to the trumpet.
Sports were not overlooked. When Debi was in the third grade, she brought home an advertisement for a boy’s basketball league. Janice pressured the organizers to start a league for girls so that Debi could play.
“It was easy to know what Debi preferred, her skating,” Janice said. “Wouldn’t you know she would like the thing that was the most expensive?”
Janice can laugh about it now, but it has not been easy. She told stories of missed mortgage payments, of ruined credit ratings, of skating boots that remained in use long after they should have been discarded, of Debi teaching herself how to sew and making her own costumes.
Her half-brother, Richard Taylor, who continues to send money, once contributed $3,000 while still in school at Cal Berkeley.
“I was eating French toast five days a week and lots of eggs,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in 1985. “For about a month at one point, I was sleeping in my Vega station wagon, eating with a flashlight in my car, hoping not to be picked up by the police. I love my sister and wanted to help her realize her dreams.”
In Thomas’ early teens, it appeared as if her family’s investments might not pay dividends. At 13, she could not earn a berth in the Pacific Coast regional junior qualifying, much less the national championship meet. At 14, her first year as a senior, she went to the regionals but not the national. At 15, her first year in the senior national, she finished 13th.
Later that year, 1983, she was invited to a competition in Tours, France, and won, beating the French champion. She became known in the French press as la Perle Noire , the Black Pearl.
“To them, it was like a total unknown popped out of nowhere,” McGowan said. “Debi worked backwards. Most skaters get exposure in the United States and then go over there. What the international judges didn’t know was, even in this country she was unknown.”
That soon changed. She finished sixth in the 1984 national competition, second to Tiffany Chin in 1985 and won in 1986.
“It’s kind of funny,” Thomas said. “It seemed like it took the United States a lot longer to figure out I was a pretty good skater. I have no idea what the reason was.”
Asked if racism played a part in it, McGowan said, “Because Debi was one of the first black skaters, there may have been some doubt in the minds of the U.S. judges whether the international judges would accept her.”
Thomas’ mother is less diplomatic.
“When Debi would do great and still not get good scores, she’d say she did as well as the others,” Janice said. “I’d say, ‘They’re blond and can get away things you can’t.’ Then I’d tell her to fix whatever she was doing wrong, that she had to be 10 times better than everyone else. You can’t wallow in it.”
But now Janice complains that her daughter does not even recognize racism. Perhaps it is because Debi has not had as much experience with it as her mother.
Raised in Wichita, the daughter of a Cornell-educated veterinarian, Janice lived in an integrated neighborhood and went to integrated junior and senior high schools. But she could not sit with her white friends at the movie theaters or in the dime store snack bar booths, could not get summer jobs and was not allowed in the town’s only roller skating rink.
When she tried to enroll in a ballet class, the teacher put her instead in tap dancing because, she said, blacks were better at that.
“Debi’s been very lucky,” Janice said. “I remember coming home from a competition when she was just getting started in skating and somebody had burned a cross in our front yard. They had written ‘nigger’ on the garage door.
“We live in a predominantly white neighborhood in San Jose, but we had already been there for years. I was nervous and upset, but it didn’t really have any impact on Debi. She probably had no comprehension of what the cross thing was even about. She knew nothing at all of the KKK.
“That’s a little sad. There’s still so much work to be done. If you’re so far from it that you don’t realize there’s a problem, you’re not able to help. I thought Debi would get to an age where she had to be more conscious of these things. But now she’s less apt to see it. Who’s going to help us if we don’t help ourselves?”
If it is Debi’s job, she does not yet comprehend it. She said that she realizes she is a role model for young blacks but said she has difficulty relating to it.
“I never felt I had to have role models,” she said. “I admired the people on top, but that was it.”
She is as carefree as Wanda Beazel.
“I’ve never had anyone talk to me in a way that made me feel any different from anybody else,” she told Sports Illustrated in 1986. “So why on earth would I want to become the first black champion. I just wanted to be the champion.”