"At the nationals this year, I didn't look at the competition through a haze," she says. "It wasn't do or die for me. I'd been working hard at school, and I thought to myself, 'All right, try to enjoy yourself now, and maybe by accident you'll land all these triples.' I wasn't burdened with the pressure of knowing that was all I had been working for."
Enjoy herself she did, executing all five triples on her program for the first time in five months—practices included—in a dazzling performance that brought the New York crowd out of its seats. Thomas is an exciting skater, fast and powerful, jazzy as much as balletic. Just before her freestyle final, however, McGowan tried to remove the triple loop from her program because she had fallen three times trying to land it in warmups. Thomas wouldn't let him. "If you take it out, I can't win," she told him. "I want to do it."
"She's stubborn, but I can use that stubbornness," says McGowan. "I let her know at the nationals that she was deliberately going against my instructions and if she didn't make that triple loop I was going to be furious. The idea was maybe to make her more afraid of me than of the triple. So of course she made it, just so she could prove her coach wrong. But to even try it, after missing moments before, took the sort of determination that puts her head and shoulders above some of her competitors." McGowan smiles. "She also told me once that, underneath it all, she's really a ham. The bigger the crowd, the better she skates."
At Redwood City, Thomas is practicing that triple loop again—no crowd this time, no national championship at stake. Just McGowan and the dramatic strains of Duke Ellington's The River reverberating through the Ice Lodge. She has missed it twice in a row, doing what McGowan calls "jelly bean jumps," instead of leaping high and far, which is her trademark. "Imagine there's a New York crowd in the background," McGowan says, clapping his hands. As Thomas begins to circle into the jump, he begins cackling: "Yaaaa-yaaaa-yaaaa! Yaaaa-yaaaa-yaaaa!" Thomas is suddenly airborne, spinning once, twice, three times and landing with a graceful arc. She glides silently to a stop.
"There," says McGowan, beaming. "Did I sound like a New York crowd?"
"No, you sounded like a chicken," says Thomas.
McGowan rewinds the tape. "All right. Try it again," he says. Thomas grumbles a little before reassuming her starting posture. "It's only one lousy jump, Debi," McGowan says. "You've got to do five to beat Katarina Witt."
Maybe she needs a miracle. Or maybe she just is one.