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

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.

"That's not what I needed to hear," she said. "He told me, 'Do it for America.' I thought, 'What does America have to do with this?' I'm the one who skated all those hours. I should have been doing it for myself. I lost that feeling. When I got done skating, I felt like I had let down the country."

Her agent, Jay Ogden of the International Management Group, said that is the reason she seemed so distant during the awards ceremony. He said that she did not mean disrespect to Witt or Manley.

"She was in shock," Ogden said. "She felt that she had disappointed millions of American people. She felt that people were going to hate her."

Thomas said she barely remembers the awards ceremony.

The truth is, she said, she did not lose the gold medal that night. She lost it months before, when she discovered that she no longer was receiving the same satisfaction from skating as she had in the past.

Again, she pointed a finger at McGowan. She said that he convinced her to drop out of Stanford last winter, move to Boulder, Colo., and devote all of her energy to preparing for the Olympics. The only other time she had put skating ahead of school, when she was a 13-year-old eighth-grader in San Jose, the result was the most miserable year of her life. Until the Olympic year.

"My coach really felt that if he could get me out there alone, away from school, that I would be like a robot and do whatever he wanted," she said. "He never understood my reasons for skating. He once asked me, 'Why do you want to go to school when you can go all the way in skating?'

"School was my way of getting away from things. It was also my way of putting skating in its right perspective. If I had a test, I could only skate two hours a day instead of six. In Colorado, all I had to do was skate and skate and skate. I would go home and do nothing. I got sick of skating.

"It was a struggle. He really tried to make it happen from his standpoint. But you can't make someone do something they don't want to do. I told him that I was really bored with skating, and he said, 'How can you not be excited about this?' By the time I got to the Olympics, I was burned out."

After looking forward for so long to participating in the Olympics, she said that she was not able to enjoy it once she was there.

"Here I was at the Olympics, and I didn't feel like I was at the Olympics," she said. "I went for the opening ceremony, then went back home for a week to train. Basically, I got to see two hockey games. It was like being at Skate Canada again.

"I felt like, 'If this is my Olympic experience, why does Mr. McGowan feel he has to control it?' Coaches should try to read more what their skaters are thinking. Everyone in your support group has to try and understand what you're going through. But I know he's not able to sit back and say, 'OK, Debi, do whatever you feel you have to do.' He's not able to do that."

McGowan, who now coaches at a rink outside Detroit, has been reluctant to respond to Thomas' comments.

"It's a no-win situation for me," he said in Baltimore.

But in defense of himself, he did say that he coached Thomas no differently last year than he had in years before and that his remarks to her before she skated in Calgary were little different from those he made to her before other performances.

"She didn't complain about me when she won national championships in 1986 and 1988 or the world championship in 1986," he said.

He said that he did not change; Thomas did.

In fact, Thomas began a relationship shortly after arriving in Boulder with a University of Colorado student, Brian Vanden Hogen. They were married a few weeks after the Olympics. As an indication of the rift between Thomas and McGowan, she did not tell him, even though he was preparing her for the world championships in Budapest a month after the Olympics. He read about it in news reports after the world championships, in which she again finished third.

She said that the relationship did not interfere with her Olympic effort. "Brian felt like it was his fault," she said. "But I told him that if that were true, I wouldn't have won at the national championships (a month before the Olympics). So that disproves that theory."

Thomas has resumed her pre-med studies at Stanford. She said that she plans to graduate in December of 1990.

Before beginning medical school, she said that she will take a year off from school to either start a family or skate professionally. She already skates most weekends for "Stars on Ice" and recently, performing a 007 routine to "Diamonds are Forever," won the world professional figure skating championship in Landover, Md. "I thought amateur skating was hard," she said. "You should try doing a triple jump with a hat and a squirt gun."

Even though she gave them a reason not to in Calgary, people still seem to like her. She draws large ovations at most performances, particularly on the East and West coasts, and said she still receives numerous fan letters.

"It was the biggest mess I've ever made, but some people still tell me they think I should have won," she said.

Ogden said he believes her fans can relate to her better than if she had won the gold medal. Her Calgary experience humanized her to a certain extent," he said. "People feel now that they can touch her."

There has been little desire to do that on the part of advertisers. Before the Olympics, it was anticipated that she would emerge as their brightest star. But marketing experts said that besides winning a bronze instead of a gold medal, she did not project the proper image in Calgary. Her only deal is with MacMillan books. She is the spokeswoman for their reading campaign.

But Ogden said they turned down some offers and are still entertaining others. In the latest Q ratings for athletes, which indicate a person's marketability, Thomas finished 12th. No other woman finished among the top 22. That rating was taken before the Summer Olympics. Ogden said he believes the only other woman who will have a significant standing in the next Q ratings is sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner.

"If you compare what I made before the Olympics and what I'm making now, I'm doing pretty well," Thomas said. "But I don't know what it could have been if things had been different in Calgary. If Diet Pepsi wants me, I'm here."

When she heard one of those typical reporter questions--would you do it all over again?--she laughed.

"I wouldn't do it again because I already did it once," she said. "But I don't have any regrets."

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