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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?' "