In her try for a national figure-skating championship last February, Debi Thomas looked like a good bet to win worst case of nerves. Thanks to schoolwork, the Stanford freshman arrived in Uniondale, N.Y. after only five scant weeks of intensive training, and she was muffing her triple jumps as though she were practicing pratfalls. “I told myself, ‘All your friends are watching, and if you don’t skate well, they’re not going to know what to say except that your dress looked nice,’ ” recalls Thomas. “The announcer called my name and I heard a roar. I get along with people and have a whole lot of friends. It was just exhilarating, and I thought, ‘I’ll take the jumps one at a time.’ I landed my first triple, then the second, the one I’d messed up in practice. My fourth is a hard one for me, and my coach had wanted me to take it out, but I said no. I came down, and when I found I was still standing, well, my mouth dropped open. I thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ I was having a ball.”
Thomas, 19, completed five triple jumps in all—an extraordinary feat in figure skating—to dethrone Tiffany Chin as the U.S. women’s champion. One month later in Switzerland she was back on the ice, separating East Germany’s Katarina Witt from the world title she had held since 1984. Not only is Thomas the first black to wear either crown in the seniors division, but she managed to win them while combining competition and college. To the infectiously cheery microbiology student, the twin pursuits “are both intense, and they balance each other out. Skating all the time would be yuck, and studying all the time would be yuck, and we don’t want yuck.”
Getting the mix right hasn’t been easy. The time spent on ice meant taking three makeup exams last summer. But Thomas knows what she is doing. “I want to be an orthopedic surgeon,” she says. “I know too many skaters who don’t get the gold medals or the big skating contracts and their lives are over. I want to leave this sport willingly.”
Raised in San Jose, Calif. by her divorced mother, Janice, a computer programmer, Thomas strapped on her first blades at 5 after seeing a performance by Mr. Frick, the famed Ice Follies comedian. By the time her high school pals were plotting for prom dates, Mom and daughter were putting 3,000 miles a month on the family car driving to skating classes at a distant rink. In Switzerland last March, when all the training paid off with the world championship, Mr. Frick appeared at the ceremonies with a bouquet of flowers for his longtime fan.
Early next year Thomas will try to repeat her triumphs when she defends her national title in Tacoma, Wash, and her world championship in Cincinnati. By summer she’ll be back on the blades vying for a spot on the 1988 U.S. Olympics team. To Dr. Tenley Albright, a Boston surgeon who managed to mix schooling at Radcliffe with skating championships of her own in the 1950s, the Stanford coed has been demonstrating something more than mere skating skills when she hits the ice. “What Debi has done is encourage kids to get into a sport they love and show that they can have a career or other interests as well,” says Albright. “It’s a wonderful message. I call her balanced both on the ice and in life.”