Sunday morning, 9 a.m. Sleepy silence in Stanford's Toyon Hall, except for a muffled rustling in room 133. Debi Thomas, national figure skating champion, is leafing through a chemistry text. She is lying on two pillows, contorted amid the litter of papers, books, laundry and shoes, which five minutes of tidying did not begin to dent. The walls are decorated with souvenir banners and flags, a pair of antique skates, a poster of John Lennon, Godiva chocolate advertisements and dozens of aphorisms written with blue and red Magic Markers.
LIFE IS BAD WHEN THE OREOS ARE DROPPED. Ain't it the truth.
THERE'S A HELL OF A GOOD UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR; LET'S GO—e.e. cummings. You first.
THIS WALL IS ALIVE.
If the wall isn't, the stained, mustard-colored rug almost certainly is. Or could it be those socks? A vase of roses sits decomposing on Thomas's desk. A portable TV rests on a portable fridge. The beds? There are no beds. Just a three-woman loft in the adjacent room. This is college living, all right, the real thing.
Thomas begins to construct a model of a molecule, which delights her in visible if mysterious ways. An 18-year-old freshman, she has already declared a medical microbiology major, a curriculum a Stanford spokesman describes as "one of the most difficult in the university." The courses include general microbiology, principles of immunology, animal viruses. "All that stuff sounds great" says Thomas. She is spontaneously funny by nature, but apparently is serious about this. She intends to be an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine when her skating career is finished and, given her track record, one isn't inclined to bet against it.
"She's into school," one of her roommates, Nicole Holzapfel of Pottersville, N.J., says. "We go to bed at 11 or 12, and Debi will be down there studying. Sometimes she'll crawl up into the loft at 3 a.m., or maybe we'll find her asleep on the floor in the morning. She wants to prove she can do it—skate and get good grades. She's not here just to get by."
For the past month, since Thomas won the U.S. Senior Ladies Figure Skating Championship in Uniondale, N.Y., becoming the first black skater to win a senior national championship, her life has been a whirling arabesque. Midterms, all-night cramming sessions, interviews with, among others, ABC, NBC, CBS, Ebony and Time, plus a bout with the flu have kept her from any sort of serious training or sleep. Holzapfel and Thomas's other roommate, Kaija Lewis, have doubled as her unofficial press buffers, fending off reporters who began calling the dorm with such frequency that the university finally changed Thomas's phone number. Debi's mother, Janice Thomas, who lives in nearby San Jose, changed her number, too. "It's been interesting to watch," says Holzapfel. "Look! They're filming Debi eating salad! It hasn't really gotten to Debi because she's just so funny. She isn't intense about it. And she loves to talk to people. She once told me that's what she likes most about college."
With midterms behind her now, Thomas can direct her energies toward the world championships in Geneva, which will be held March 17 to 23. Thomas is, as she puts it, "ready to cram for skating." She's preparing for a showdown with Katarina Witt, the East German beauty who currently reigns as world and European champion. Thomas believes she can beat her. "I think I can outstyle her and out-triple her," she says, referring to the five triple jumps that she nailed at the nationals. Witt attempted only two at January's European championships, though she has done as many as four in the past. "Katarina does the stuff and smiles, but her jumps aren't all that high," Thomas says. "Her landings are kind of robotic. Toller Cranston [the '76 Olympic bronze medalist] has said there's nothing artistic about her skating. I don't mean to criticize, because she gets the job done. But if I skate the way I can, I don't think anyone can beat me."
Thomas puts down her molecule model, checks the time and changes into her sweats. Late again for her workout.