"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.