December 09, 1985 12:00 PM

As the first black ever to achieve major recognition for excelling in figure skating, Debi Thomas, 18, is aware she is drawing attention because of her race. But beyond acknowledging that there are not many black skaters, Debi is impatient with the whole subject. “I’m just doing what I always wanted to do,” she says with a shrug. “I want to be the best skater I can be.” Going into February’s national championships in New York, Thomas is ranked No. 2 in the country, behind fellow Californian Tiffany Chin, 18.

Debi, whose divorced parents both work in the Silicon Valley computer industry, was raised in a prosperous neighborhood in San Jose. After seeing the Ice Follies at age 4, Debi started taking lessons, and when she was 10, she began making the two-and-a-half-hour round-trip to the Redwood City Ice Lodge (where Peggy Fleming once trained). Thomas has earned a reputation for daring and athleticism, and she has risen steadily in the rankings. Six weeks ago at’ the Skate America event in St. Paul, Minn., she picked up her fifth gold medal in international competition.

Though Thomas has every intention of representing the U.S. at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, the Stanford freshman is equally determined to see that her skating does not interfere with her pre-med courses. The 5’6″, 116-pound skater is convinced she can handle both. Says Debi, “I will just have to keep my head screwed on straight.”

When Neil Shicoff was 14 his father wanted him to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer, but the headstrong teenager only had ears for opera. Now 36, the Juilliard-trained tenor may soon find his name mentioned in the same breath with Pavarotti and Domingo, as he embarks on a year that would have put a gleam in Caruso’s eye, if not a knot in his vocal cords. Next month he opens as the male lead in Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In June Shicoff will debut at Milan’s La Scala and next fall will open the San Francisco Opera season in anew production of Don Carlo.

The son of a Borscht Belt cantor, Brooklyn-born Shicoff was recruited into the family business to sing at a wedding when he was only 12. “His voice was so beautiful,” says his sister, “the groom started to cry.” It was a gift that Neil first realized was special at Mets games. “I’d scream at the umpire and he’d yell back: ‘Shut up, kid!’ That’s when I knew my voice really carried.”

Now living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (not far from the sculptured group above), Shicoff enjoys fishing in Maine with his wife, Judith Haddon, also an opera singer. “I don’t sing a note when I’m fishing,” he says. “Most fish are not avid opera fans.” Soon, though, they may be the only ones not singing Neil Shicoff’s praises.

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