An ordinary ice princess she isn't. It's not just that Debi Thomas of San Jose, Calif. is the first black national champion in U.S. figure skating history—novice, juniors, seniors, men's, women's, you name it. Thomas is different on the inside. Start with the fact that she's a freshman premed student at Stanford who is loath to devote all her time to skating because "this sport is flaky" and because she harbors fears of "frying my brain." The last U.S. champion to pursue a college education while competing, for heaven's sake, was Tenley Albright, Radcliffe '58. Then there's this thing with chemistry: "I like naming molecules," says the 18-year-old Thomas. Uh-huh, molecules. Got that from Peggy Fleming, right?
It seemed that Thomas's principal concern last week at the national championships in Uniondale, N.Y. was not that she kept butchering triple Salchows in practice, but that word had leaked out about the C she got her first semester. "I told you that you can't skate and go to school at the same time," Thomas was overheard muttering to herself after one particularly frustrating training session early in the week, mimicking the oft-heard words of her coach, Alex McGowan. So who says practice makes perfect? On Saturday, with the senior women's title on the line, what Thomas did was nail all five triple jumps in her program—a feat she had accomplished only once before, in training five months ago—to skate away with Tiffany Chin's crown, not to mention the hearts of the 7,235 spectators at the Nassau Coliseum.
Not that Thomas was the only story at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. For a while the American Chiropractic Association threatened to steal the show, but then acupuncture—no! not again!—reared its ugly needles. The senior men's event was not so much a skating competition as a Threshold of Pain duel between defending champion Brian Boitano, 22, of Sunnyvale, Calif. and his primary challenger, Christopher Bowman, 18, of Van Nuys, Calif. How bad was the week? "You remember Vietnam?" replied Bowman, who probably doesn't. Hobbled to the point of tears by a slight separation between his right tibia and fibula, Bowman dropped out of the competition after the men's short program, despite being in second place. Boitano wasn't much better off. The two-time men's champ had turned to acupuncture after bruising the tendons in his right ankle a few weeks ago in the course of practicing 30 triple Lutzes. (What he probably needed was a good rest. Boitano has been off the ice only one week since the world championships in Tokyo last March.) Asked if Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon had inspired him to try acupuncture, Boitano replied testily, "McMahon had nothing to do with it. This is the first time I've tried a lot of things: ultrasound, chiropractors, icing my ankle in hot and cold baths. It was either acupuncture or not skate at all."
Boitano, obviously limping, still dominated the freestyle competition, which says something about the depth of world-class skaters in the U.S. men's ranks. "This was not to be compared with his other performances," said Boitano's coach, Linda Leaver, after he had won. "This was a mental struggle."
There were a number of other struggles, large and small, that occurred on the ice in Uniondale. The senior dance winners were a team from Michigan, Renee Roca of St. Clair Shores and Donald Adair of Romulus, who took the title that had been vacated when Michael Seibert and Judy Blumberg turned professional. In the pairs competition, the team of Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner of the Wilmington (Del.) Skating Club—Peter and Kitty Carruthers' old stomping grounds—upset the defending champs from Los Angeles, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard.
But the real drama came in the women's competition. Early in the week the center of attention was the reclusive Chin of Toluca Lake, Calif., who had not skated competitively since coming in third in the world championships. A fourth-place finisher in the Sarajevo Olympics and the defending U.S. champ, the 18-year-old Chin had virtually dropped out of sight the past 11 months, fueling all sorts of wild rumors—at least to hear her mother, Marjorie, tell it. Among them: 1) Both of Tiffany's legs were broken; 2) Tiffany had been kicked out of school; 3) her mother was in jail; 4) the family was in financial straits; 5) the Chins' marriage was falling apart; 6) Tiffany's brother had been in a devastating car accident. None of these rumors, of course, was true.
What was true was that Tiffany's mother, an iron-willed lady whose actions have raised eyebrows in skating circles on more than one occasion, had detected a flaw in Tiffany's muscle development. From the waist down everything was canted inward—Chin was knock-kneed and pigeon-toed—to the extent that she couldn't "cross her legs like a lady," never mind jump properly. Concerned that imbalance might lead to an arthritic condition, Tiffany's mother pulled her daughter off the ice.
Since October, Tiffany has been on an exercise program specially designed for her by the International Sportsmedicine Institute. She spends as many as three hours a day trying to build up long-dormant muscles in her inner thighs and calves. When she resumed serious training after a seven-month layoff, Tiffany had to relearn the sport. The situation became further unsettled when the Chins changed coaches, leaving John Nicks in favor of Denver-based Don Laws—Scott Hamilton's former mentor—purportedly to improve Tiffany's jumping.
It was apparent as early as Thursday, during the compulsory figures competition, that Chin was not her former self. She finished second behind Thomas and just ahead of the up-and-coming Caryn Kadavy, 18, an Erie, Pa. skater who will be very much a part of the scene between now and the Calgary Olympics. It was the first time Thomas had ever won the compulsories at the national level.
Thomas had been in intensive training for only five weeks, all the while a full-time student at Stanford, much to McGowan's chagrin. "She gives up all her off-ice training by going to school," says McGowan, who had earlier admitted that his top skater before Thomas was someone named Chickie Berlin. "Plus she isn't able to eat or sleep at proper hours. When Debi arrives at the rink for training, she's exhausted."
Three days before arriving at the nationals, Thomas, who lives in a student dorm, stayed up all night studying for a midterm. "Why should I worry about sleep?" she says with a laugh. "I never got any in high school, either." Thomas, who has been taking skating lessons since she was nine, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in San Jose and attended high school in San Mateo. Her parents, who are divorced, both work in the computer industry. "A typical day?" she says. "At 8 a.m. I have calculus; 9 a.m., chemistry; 11 a.m., Western culture. Lunch. Drive 15 minutes to the rink to train from 1:15 to 7:45. Home by 8:30. Study till 3 a.m. Sometimes, anyway. I'm, like, the all-nighter queen."
Thomas, skating flawlessly, finished second in Friday's short program, edged out by Kadavy, who put on a performance of stunning elegance. Kadavy is the protégée of coach Carlo Fassi, who guided Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins and John Curry to Olympic gold medals. Like Fleming, she seems to skate not so much on the ice as above it. "I think that either Caryn or Debi would have beaten anyone in the world today," said McGowan. Chin, skating mistake-free, was workmanlike by comparison, lacking both quickness and power. Still, whichever of the three won Saturday's freestyle program would be the national champion.
Chin skated first. In the opening moments, she singled out of a planned triple flip, and her chances of retaining the title went pfffft. Afterward she seemed resigned to her third-place finish. "I'm pleased with what I did because you don't know how bad it could have been," she said, smiling bravely. "We've got six weeks until the worlds."
The next skater was Thomas. "My coach told me that to win I'd have to land all five triples," she said later. "Caryn had been so very, very strong [in the short program] that I needed to pull off some kind of miracle."
Sure, five triples, Alex. No problem. Only trouble was, Thomas had hit no more than three out of five triples all week during practice. And the warmups hadn't helped: She had tumbled twice trying triple Salchows a few minutes earlier.
But now, feeding off the audience, which cheered every difficult move, Thomas put on the performance of her life. In the opening dramatic interlude she landed all three triples as if she had never missed one in her life. From then on she skated with a grin from ear to ear. The crowd loved her, and Thomas seemed to grow in stature with each new pass around the ice. She was having a ball, totally in command, urged on by the adoration of the crowd and McGowan's cheerleading: "You've got it now, kid! It's all yours!"
"When you kind of amaze yourself I think it helps the program," Thomas said afterward. Her scores, ranging from 5.7 to 5.9, left no room for error on Kadavy's part, and after starting well, Kadavy stumbled out of a triple-loop, double-toe combination—a move that she ordinarily performs in her sleep. But her day will come. This year's title belonged to Thomas.
Asked about the significance of being the first black figure skating champion, Thomas shrugged and said, "I never really thought about that too much. It's kind of a coincidence, the way I look at it. I just wanted to be champion. It's like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, only the rainbow was full of bumps." When someone asked Thomas about her plans between now and the world championships in Geneva, March 17-23, the most interested listener was, suddenly, her coach. "Yes. What are your plans?" McGowan asked curiously.
"Well," said Thomas, "the first thing I've got to do is read Dante's Divine Comedy, because I've got a midterm exam two days after I get home."
Sounds like a job for the all-nighter queen, who now may be better known as the queen of American skating.