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."