Sunday morning, 9 a.m. Sleepy silence in Stanford's Toyon Hall, except for a muffled rustling in room 133. Debi Thomas, national figure skating champion, is leafing through a chemistry text. She is lying on two pillows, contorted amid the litter of papers, books, laundry and shoes, which five minutes of tidying did not begin to dent. The walls are decorated with souvenir banners and flags, a pair of antique skates, a poster of John Lennon, Godiva chocolate advertisements and dozens of aphorisms written with blue and red Magic Markers.
LIFE IS BAD WHEN THE OREOS ARE DROPPED. Ain't it the truth.
THERE'S A HELL OF A GOOD UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR; LET'S GO—e.e. cummings. You first.
THIS WALL IS ALIVE.
March 17, 1986
If the wall isn't, the stained, mustard-colored rug almost certainly is. Or could it be those socks? A vase of roses sits decomposing on Thomas's desk. A portable TV rests on a portable fridge. The beds? There are no beds. Just a three-woman loft in the adjacent room. This is college living, all right, the real thing.
Thomas begins to construct a model of a molecule, which delights her in visible if mysterious ways. An 18-year-old freshman, she has already declared a medical microbiology major, a curriculum a Stanford spokesman describes as "one of the most difficult in the university." The courses include general microbiology, principles of immunology, animal viruses. "All that stuff sounds great" says Thomas. She is spontaneously funny by nature, but apparently is serious about this. She intends to be an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine when her skating career is finished and, given her track record, one isn't inclined to bet against it.
"She's into school," one of her roommates, Nicole Holzapfel of Pottersville, N.J., says. "We go to bed at 11 or 12, and Debi will be down there studying. Sometimes she'll crawl up into the loft at 3 a.m., or maybe we'll find her asleep on the floor in the morning. She wants to prove she can do it—skate and get good grades. She's not here just to get by."
For the past month, since Thomas won the U.S. Senior Ladies Figure Skating Championship in Uniondale, N.Y., becoming the first black skater to win a senior national championship, her life has been a whirling arabesque. Midterms, all-night cramming sessions, interviews with, among others, ABC, NBC, CBS, Ebony and Time, plus a bout with the flu have kept her from any sort of serious training or sleep. Holzapfel and Thomas's other roommate, Kaija Lewis, have doubled as her unofficial press buffers, fending off reporters who began calling the dorm with such frequency that the university finally changed Thomas's phone number. Debi's mother, Janice Thomas, who lives in nearby San Jose, changed her number, too. "It's been interesting to watch," says Holzapfel. "Look! They're filming Debi eating salad! It hasn't really gotten to Debi because she's just so funny. She isn't intense about it. And she loves to talk to people. She once told me that's what she likes most about college."
With midterms behind her now, Thomas can direct her energies toward the world championships in Geneva, which will be held March 17 to 23. Thomas is, as she puts it, "ready to cram for skating." She's preparing for a showdown with Katarina Witt, the East German beauty who currently reigns as world and European champion. Thomas believes she can beat her. "I think I can outstyle her and out-triple her," she says, referring to the five triple jumps that she nailed at the nationals. Witt attempted only two at January's European championships, though she has done as many as four in the past. "Katarina does the stuff and smiles, but her jumps aren't all that high," Thomas says. "Her landings are kind of robotic. Toller Cranston [the '76 Olympic bronze medalist] has said there's nothing artistic about her skating. I don't mean to criticize, because she gets the job done. But if I skate the way I can, I don't think anyone can beat me."
Thomas puts down her molecule model, checks the time and changes into her sweats. Late again for her workout.
About 10 miles away, at the Redwood City Ice Lodge, Alex McGowan pulls at his Harpo Marx-style hair. "It's totally frustrating," the transplanted Scot blurts. McGowan has been Thomas's coach since she was 10 years old. She is his first national senior champion, and theirs is a love-hate relationship. "I'm going crazy," he continues. "The East Germans are training up to eight hours a day. [Caryn] Kadavy and [Tiffany] Chin [who finished second and third at the nationals] are training six hours a day. And where's Debi? People say she can do both the training and the schoolwork. That's fine. Only I don't see the training. It was the same way before the nationals, and she needed a miracle to win. Well, you can't rely on miracles."
No. But you can ask. Thomas flicks off the light switch, bound for Redwood City. On the wall beside the door is another of those quotes: I NEED A MIRACLE.
The Black Question. That's the way Debi and her 27-year-old half brother, Rick Taylor, refer to the oft-repeated query: How does it feel to be the first black champion in a lily-white sport? The truth is, Thomas never thought much about it until the media began asking her all the time. First off, there were always other black skaters around. As long ago as 1966 a black skater named Atoy Wilson won the men's national novice championship, and Bobby Beauchamp is currently the 10th-ranked American man. And 16-year-old E. Rory Flack is the top-ranked junior skater among girls.
More to the point, Thomas has never felt, or been made to feel, like an outsider or part of a minority. "I never had anybody talk to me in a way that made me feel I was any different from anyone else," she says, "so why on earth would I want to become the first black champion? I just wanted to be the champion."
Says her mother, Janice, "Debi doesn't even know the meaning of being discriminated against."
That's wonderful news, of course, testimony to how much has changed in a generation. Janice Thomas grew up in Wichita, Kans. in the '40s and '50s—"a funny town that wasn't North and wasn't South," she says now. Until she was in the seventh grade, Janice went to a segregated school. In the movie theater blacks had to sit in the balcony ("I used to think we sat up there because we liked it," she says), and they were served at the local Woolworth's at the stand-up snack bar, rather than being seated in a booth. Hotels in Wichita wouldn't admit blacks; some restaurants would, but some wouldn't. You could never tell which, and that often led to embarrassing scenes. There was one roller-skating rink in town, but Janice never skated there. Whites only.
It's easy to see where Debi gets her smarts. Her grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. Daniel Skelton—who still live in Wichita, where he works as a veterinarian—met at Cornell. Janice went to Wichita State, majoring in math with a minor in physics. "I was in this big hurry," she says. "I started college at 16, was married at 17, had Rick at 18 and was divorced at 19."
Janice married again after moving to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which is where Debi was born, to work for IBM. The family moved to San Jose when both Janice and Debi's father, McKinley Thomas, were offered positions at Control Data in nearby Sunnyvale. Eventually they, too, were divorced. McKinley now is a program manager at a computer company, Masstor Systems, in Santa Clara, while Janice, juggling the frenetic schedule of a single working parent, remains at Control Data, where she is a senior programmer-analyst.
When Debi was 3½ Janice took her to the Ice Follies. A rubber-legged comedian named Mr. Frick made such an impression on Debi that she asked her mother for ice skates. At five she finally got them. She entered her first competition at nine, won it and decided it was time to begin selecting her own music—a practice she continues to this day. "Mom, what's that song that goes: 'Dun-dun-dun-DUNNN?' "
"I want to skate to that."
What's a mother to do? Debi created her own program around Beethoven's masterpiece—she is nothing if not full of moxie—and asked her grandmother, who was visiting from Wichita, to watch her in her second competition. Her performance was a fiasco. She forgot her program and skated miserably. Her grandmother, convinced that she had somehow precipitated the disaster, didn't see Debi skate again for eight years, opting instead to send money. What this girl needed was a coach.
Debi was 10 years old when her mother first approached McGowan about coaching her. McGowan remembers the scene like this: " 'Would you coach my daughter? She's very talented.' You hear that all the time, so I asked: 'Where did she finish in her last competition?' 'Tenth.' I thought, 'Oh, God, another turkey.' Then I saw her skate figures. Just as I suspected, real rubbish."
Debi laughs at the memory. "I skated for fun. I wasn't skating because I'd watched the Olympics. I started because I'd watched Mr. Frick."
Debi was good as a youngster, but she was never the star, the girl the judges keep their eye on. "One thing that makes her so tough is she had a lot of second-place finishes while growing up," says her mother. Debi landed her first triple jump at 11, and at 12 she advanced unexpectedly to the national finals in the novice class, ending up with the silver medal. It was the first sign that she might, one day, become a champion.
So she and her mother made a decision. To allow Debi to concentrate on skating, she was taken out of school and finished eighth grade by correspondence—a practice not uncommon among young skaters. It gave her time to train under McGowan and to take classes in jazz dance and ballet off the ice. That year, 1980, she moved up from the novice to the junior ladies division, but when the regional tournament was held, Debi finished fourth. Only the top three advanced to the sectionals. "I hate to say it, but I was robbed," says Thomas now. "I thought I could be junior world champion that year."
She and her mother decided right then that her education would henceforth come first. "You have too good a mind to waste," Janice told her daughter. "Your future is not going to depend on the whims of this sport. Let's concentrate on your vocation, and if your avocation works out, fine."
Debi enrolled in San Mateo High, about 30 miles from her home in San Jose but only 12 miles from the Redwood City Ice Lodge, and for four years her mother drove some 150 miles a day—dropping Debi off at school before work, returning to take her to practice, then picking her up again after working late to drive the two of them home. Money was always tight—it can cost $25,000 a year to train a top skater—and Debi's skates were rehabilitated with Elmer's glue long after most skaters would have heaved them into the trash. One year she skated figures in a pair of refurbished secondhand black roller skates. She even taught herself to sew and began making her own skating dresses. "I never could sew buttons," says Janice.
On the way to school Debi studied, and on the way home she slept. Somehow everything began to fall into place. Her ranking among senior women went from 13th to sixth to second between 1983 and '85—a nice steady progression up the political ladder that rules figure skating. Academically, she excelled to the point of being accepted for admission to Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. Asked on her Stanford application to choose one adjective to describe herself, Thomas wrote: "invincible."
In some ways, the skating and the studies have complemented each other. When Thomas skates, her mind is freed from the cobwebs of molecules and organic chemistry, and when she studies, it's freed from the dizziness of sit spins and triple loops. A bright mind is easily bored, and a bored mind is little good to a teacher or a coach.
"At the nationals this year, I didn't look at the competition through a haze," she says. "It wasn't do or die for me. I'd been working hard at school, and I thought to myself, 'All right, try to enjoy yourself now, and maybe by accident you'll land all these triples.' I wasn't burdened with the pressure of knowing that was all I had been working for."
Enjoy herself she did, executing all five triples on her program for the first time in five months—practices included—in a dazzling performance that brought the New York crowd out of its seats. Thomas is an exciting skater, fast and powerful, jazzy as much as balletic. Just before her freestyle final, however, McGowan tried to remove the triple loop from her program because she had fallen three times trying to land it in warmups. Thomas wouldn't let him. "If you take it out, I can't win," she told him. "I want to do it."
"She's stubborn, but I can use that stubbornness," says McGowan. "I let her know at the nationals that she was deliberately going against my instructions and if she didn't make that triple loop I was going to be furious. The idea was maybe to make her more afraid of me than of the triple. So of course she made it, just so she could prove her coach wrong. But to even try it, after missing moments before, took the sort of determination that puts her head and shoulders above some of her competitors." McGowan smiles. "She also told me once that, underneath it all, she's really a ham. The bigger the crowd, the better she skates."
At Redwood City, Thomas is practicing that triple loop again—no crowd this time, no national championship at stake. Just McGowan and the dramatic strains of Duke Ellington's The River reverberating through the Ice Lodge. She has missed it twice in a row, doing what McGowan calls "jelly bean jumps," instead of leaping high and far, which is her trademark. "Imagine there's a New York crowd in the background," McGowan says, clapping his hands. As Thomas begins to circle into the jump, he begins cackling: "Yaaaa-yaaaa-yaaaa! Yaaaa-yaaaa-yaaaa!" Thomas is suddenly airborne, spinning once, twice, three times and landing with a graceful arc. She glides silently to a stop.
"There," says McGowan, beaming. "Did I sound like a New York crowd?"
"No, you sounded like a chicken," says Thomas.
McGowan rewinds the tape. "All right. Try it again," he says. Thomas grumbles a little before reassuming her starting posture. "It's only one lousy jump, Debi," McGowan says. "You've got to do five to beat Katarina Witt."
Maybe she needs a miracle. Or maybe she just is one.