Episode #30: Debi Thomas

An interview with Debi Thomas, World Champion, National Champion and 1988 Olympic Bronze Medalist. 1 hour, 24 minutes, 47 seconds long.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment: I did trip and fall on my face once. When I did my “Push It” exhibition number, I had this part where I skipped up the ice, and I totally did the faceplant. But pretty much every girl on that tour had faceplanted at least once, as I recall [laughs], so it wasn’t like I was the first. But I don’t get embarrassed that easily.

On how she got started in skating: My mom pretty much took me with her to everything, and I got dragged along from the time I was two. For some reason, ice shows, there was something about the whole gliding across the ice thing that makes you say, I want to do that. And seeing Mr. Frick, he was great. I wanted to be Mr. Frick. It was just kind of ironic, at my world championship where I won, he was right there with flowers, and I got to dance with him at the after-party in Geneva.

On representing the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club while living and training in the San Francisco area: I skated a good portion of my skating career in the Bay Area. And the reason I ended up skating for LA, and hopefully I won’t upset any people out there listening [laughs], but as we know, skating is a somewhat political sport. At the Crystal Springs Ice Skating Club [that she first represented] there was a judge named Barbara Mead, she helped me get a nose job because our sport is so vain [laughs]. I got the first one when I was 16 or 17. But it’s a glamor sport and a political sport, and I didn’t have a lot of judges from my club. And at the time in the Bay Area, my club was smaller than the St. Moritz club and the El Camino club, and they all had rivalries. I’m certain I won novice at Regionals because everyone was trying to give it to somebody else [laughs]. But the year that I decided we were going to concentrate on skating and I was going to do correspondence school, I was a junior, and I had three triples and was skating all the time, and really should have won everything, but I didn’t get out of Regionals. I almost quit skating because of it. And then it hit me, and it was like this lightbulb went off, and I was, it’s not the sport you hate, not the skating you hate, it’s the system. It’s messed up but what are you going to do? So I decided, from here on out, when I’m skating, I’m skating for me. And I’m skating to do the best that I can. I may win, I may not win, but that’s how I’m going to look at it. And I’m still going to school and I’m going to be a doctor, and that’s how it’s going to be.

And so I decided to move up to Seniors. I hate to use the word “rip off”, but I can because I’m not going to skate again [laughs]. I figured if I’m going to get ripped off, I might as well get ripped off in seniors. So what ended up happening was the Burges, Wendy Burge’s parents, came to us and said, we think we can help you. The LA Figure Skating is a big strong club and produces a lot of champions. So that’s how I ended up there. We would go down there to compete but I still trained in the Bay Area.

On how she ended up working with coach Alex McGowan:  First of all, you have to understand my mom. My mom went to see a skating competition when I was out of town visiting relatives, before I started competing, and when I came back she knew how skating was scored and all of this stuff. So she said, I went to see a skating competition, want to go see one? So I said sure. And I saw all these little kids on the ice, doing their thing and running around with medals, and I said, I could have done that, sign me up, I want to do that. My first coach was a lady by the name of Beth Callan, she coached me in preliminary. So the next year — this is classic Debi Thomas, I make decisions based on the weirdest stuff. So there was this figure called threes to center, in the first figure test, and it was a nightmare for me, I hated it. So I decided I’m not going to compete in pre-juvenile because I don’t like threes to center. I’m going to move up to juvenile because I like the figures better. Even though I pretty much stunk at figures at that time in my life [laughs].  So I skated juvenile in the same competition that I won in preliminary, and I think I finished something like 11th in figures, and I was crying because I thought I was a star. So my mom figured out that the two coaches in the area that had the most skaters performing well were Christy Kjarsgaard and Alex McGowan, so we talked to both of them. And Christy was like, I’m going to put her back in pre-juvenile. And I was like, I want him [laughs]. I don’t think he even knows that story.

On skating competitively while attending university full-time: I did better as an underdog and juggling school and skating. The year that I won Worlds, people were like, there’s no way she’s going to do this. She’s at Stanford, she just gained the freshman 15 [pounds]. My coach was going out of his mind because I was like, I can’t come to the rink, I have to study for finals. But I did better that way. I was a mental skater, and for some reason when you’re ill-prepared you get tougher mentally. And because performance is 95% psychological, it’s almost better to not have things going well, because you get like, gosh, OK, I’ve got to do this.

But I did better in this situation. I’m just weird that way. And part of the reason I performed well at [1987] Nationals was, oh no, all of your new Stanford friends are watching this on TV, and you do not want to have to go back there and hear them say, oh well, at least your outfit looked nice [laughs]. I’m motivated by very strange things sometimes, but whatever works.

On the 1988 Olympics: It was my least favorite [long] program and I refuse to watch it. It was a disappointment for me not because I got the bronze medal, but because I knew I was a much better skater than how I performed. And in retrospect I know what went wrong. I totally deviated from what I would normally do to prepare for a competition. I was used to everybody having low expectations of me, I guess [laughs], and I didn’t do well with that whole thing of, this is yours, this is your year.  But one thing about Katarina [Witt] is that she’s an extremely tough competitor, and she comes together when she has to. It’s not luck, it’s not anything but being tough. And as much as people like to sensationalize that Katarina would psych out her competition, I doubt that. People psych themselves out. I don’t think Katarina standing at the boards had any effect on me, because I couldn’t see her. I was in my own world.

My problem was, I didn’t get psyched up. If I don’t do the things I need to do to get ready, then I will probably be too passive and not be aggressive enough to perform. Part of what happened at the Olympics was, I actually told myself, you’re not ready. Alex McGowan, it was his first Olympics, so of course he’s nervous, and he’s trying to say the things to me that he thinks are going to make me perform better, which was to just keep talking and to tell me not to worry, Katarina didn’t skate that well, Liz Manley’s too far away, and so on — and those are things I really don’t want to hear because I really don’t care what they did. I have my own thing to do. And all that talking about them is doing is taking me away from what I need to be thinking about.

There was an issue about saying that after the Olympics, and I apologized, and I’m not blaming him for what happened, but if you know me, you know that the best thing to do is to leave me alone and not talk to me [laughs]. And what happened was I felt very flustered when I got out there, and I basically said to myself, you’re not ready. And what I’ve learned is that whole mental aspect of the game, if you’re really good at it you should be able to turn it on and off. And what I should have done at that moment was said, this is the Olympics, you have trained for this and you’re ready and you’re going to go for this and be very aggressive. Instead what I ended up saying was something that my coach always told me, which is your body will just do it because you’re trained. And so that was probably the first time in my career that I can remember sort of going passive and saying something negative to myself.  It was just bizarre. But I think it was because leading up to the Olympics I was starting to get burnt out and frustrated. You can’t blame it on that kind of stuff, because overcoming adversity is what this is about, but I thought I would get to the Olympics and get pumped up about it being the Olympics. But we ended up going back to Colorado to train, and I wanted to enjoy the Olympics and I really didn’t get to.

And it was in my mind that I wanted the program of my life. Maybe my priorities were a little out of whack, but that’s what I wanted. Now I realize that it was like the third most watched sporting event of all time, and I’m like, wow, a lot of people saw that, maybe I should have skated better [laughs]. And the two-foot [landing] on the triple-triple [first jump combination] wasn’t that bad, but to me it felt horrible. It was like, oh, my whole program is flawed now. That’s a mental thing, and you have to make a decision. Am I doing this to do the best program I can do, am I doing this to fight for everything that’s in the program, am I doing this to win the gold medal, whatever. Unfortunately I didn’t really convince myself that I was going to keep fighting if it didn’t go right. I guess I didn’t think that it could go wrong. You hate for the Olympics to have to be a learning experience, but I did learn from that.

On the “battle of the Carmens” between her and Katarina Witt at the 1988 Olympics: We didn’t actually use that much of the same music. But I actually found out [that Witt had also chosen Carmen for her long program music] because I used to have this Hungarian ice-dancer boyfriend, and he was coached by Krisztina Regőczy in LA. And we were actually at Krisztina’s house and he had just been at Karl-Marx-Stadt where Katarina was training. And nobody had skated to Carmen in a really long time, and Linda Fratianne had skated to it and she was my favorite. And she used some parts from the ballet version of Carmen, and the Bolshoi Ballet version is actually different, and then there’s the opera version. So really the only part that Katarina and I had that was the same were that opening part, which is from the Bolshoi Ballet version. So we’re at Krisztina’s house, and I’m sitting there all excited, guess what, nobody’s skated to this in a long time, I’m skating to Carmen! And his face is just like . . . and I said, don’t tell me Katarina’s skating to it too, and he said, uh-huh. And I was like, well, I’m not changing, she’ll have to change [laughs]. And I got to work with Baryshnikov, so I got the good end of the stick [laughs].

On her experience as a black athlete, and the first black athlete to win a Winter Olympic medal: I just say ‘black’ because not all black Americans are African-Americans. But here’s the thing. There was not, as I recall, any blatant racism, people calling me the n-bomb or anything like that. But you wonder, certain things that people aren’t willing to say or admit. There was a coach at the rink where I skated locally who wouldn’t coach me. He’s not going to flat-out say it’s because you’re a little black kid, but he was too busy to be bothered with me. Of course, now, it’s like, oh, I discovered her, I always knew she’d be great, and I’m like, really? [laughs] The interesting thing is, my mother, even if she was thinking it, would never tell me, you didn’t place higher than that because you’re black. She didn’t believe that, and that’s probably a good thing because all that does is hold you back. She just said, you’ve got to be better, and I just got better and better. It’s a ladder-climbing thing, and I didn’t feel I was ever held back because of my race. And that’s a good thing, for the sport and for society.

On the era when she competed:  Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy are both really good friends. It’s funny because my favorite skaters are actually people I competed with [laughs]. Jill and Caryn and Tiffany Chin are probably three of my favorite female skaters. Linda Fratianne was pretty much my idol, and once I skated for LA, we would see the Fratiannes from time to time, and her mom would let me stay at their house when I went down to LA. A lot of warm, nice people — it’s a great family. Even though it’s people you competed with, you have such high respect for them because you know they were going through the same thing that you were going through. When Jill won Nationals in 1987 and took my title, she was so upset, she was like, I’m sorry. And I was like, about what? You outskated me [laughs]. And I think she was more upset at the Olympics about my performance than I was, because I remember she was in tears backstage, what happened, Debi? So you have these people that you have this bond with because of that.

On wearing a unitard in competition: I wasn’t even the first person to wear a unitard. I guess I’m flattered that they called the rule [banning unitards, in effect until 2005] the Debi Thomas rule, but Jill Frost skated to Cats in 1982, I think, when she won juniors [at US Nationals]. She had this fantastic program and it looked great, and that’s where I got the idea. I was skating to rock music, Dead or Alive’s Something in my House, and it didn’t make any sense to wear a skirt. And it wasn’t too revealing. Wedgies are revealing [laughs].

On her Wanda Beazel exhibition program: Because of YouTube, several generations of skaters have seen it now [laughs]. And I wasn’t the first person to do that kind of program either. Scott Gregory had this program called The Sunday Skater that I remember seeing him do on tour, and it was hilarious. By no coincidence at all, when I was making up Wanda Beazel, I wasn’t thinking, oh, this is just like The Sunday Skater, but everybody who trained with Scott, they’re like, oh, it’s The Sunday Skater! And the reason I did Wanda, we had these showcase competitions that became popular for kids at our rink, so after the competitive season was over I would usually have to stop to catch up with school, and I wouldn’t skate for a couple of months. But we had this competition at our rink, and I thought, well, wouldn’t it be nice to support the competition and be in it. So my original plan was to do a rock number that my friend and I were going to do together to Styx’ Paradise Theatre, and to be rock stars and do all this goofy stuff. Well, two days before the competition they contacted me and said, Debi, you can’t enter the comedy event as a pair, it’s supposed to be an individual event. And the funny thing was that my friend was actually the funny one, and a lot of the opening moves in the program were from her having fun out in the parking lot, saying, remember when we used to skate like this?

So I went home and was like, what’s the funniest piece of music I have in my collection? Oh, it’s Sabre Dance. So I cut it, I used to cut all my own music, and I went in the rink the next day and blocked the program out. And I put the music on, and I just did it, and everybody was on the floor laughing. It literally took ten minutes [laughs]. And I ended up winning the competition and got to be in the recall numbers, for Wanda of all things. And then I started doing it as a show number and as an exhibition number.

On being a professional skater: I have to be honest, I did not really enjoy my pro career until the last year. I was skating with Stars on Ice but I wasn’t really part of that show. It was a really great show, it was a real innovation, but because I was in school and was flying in on weekends to do guest appearances, I couldn’t really be part of the show. And you had all these skaters who had been touring together for years. The last year I ended up doing the whole tour because of the time frame when I took my MCAT [medical college admission test] and when I started med school.  But I remember showing up for rehearsals in Aspen and I didn’t feel that I fit in, because, like, if we were working on a dance step or something, I would throw a fit if I messed up. And it was more because you didn’t want people to think it was OK to mess up. And somehow this whole thing sort of escalated, and, I don’t know, the choreographer yelled at me, and I left, like, I don’t need this, I’m going to be a doctor, blah blah, drama. So now that I made a fool of myself and reflected on it, it’s like, how do I go back there? You asked about the most embarrassing, maybe that was it [laughs]. So I went back with my tail between my legs. And my friend Denise Hannon was there with me, and I was like, what do I do, I can’t even start med school now, and she was like, just go back and maybe pretend nothing happened, and I was like, I can’t do this. And going through this discussion, I was like, I can’t go back, and now I’m late. So I go back and rehearsal’s already started, and Kitty and Peter [Carruthers] had a crash, and Karen Kresge shouts out, hey, are you OK? just as I’m sneaking in to join the number [laughs]. And Peter yells back, well, if people would show up for rehearsal on time and not be prima donnas . . . So I start crying, and basically Scott Hamilton had to come do some damage control. He said, you don’t have to be perfect, we just want you to try to enjoy this and put in your best effort, that’s all you have to do. And pretty much from that point on, I was a different person, and I had the time of my life that year. It was a great year and a really nice way for me to end my skating career.

On her skating now: I skate about twice a year, because my husband makes me. There’s so many other things I’d rather do with my spare time [laughs]. Once I had my son, my feet grew about two sizes, so my skates don’t fit, and they hurt, and it’s not fun when you can’t do stuff anymore. We used to go somewhere wintery in the winter like Lake Tahoe, where there’s a little outdoor rink, and Chris made me take my skates because he wants to do the whole winter wonderland bit. And this past year, with the 2016 [Chicago] bid [to host the Winter Olympics], I came in and skated for that. But other than that, I don’t skate at all. There’s a rink in Champaign at the University of Illinois, and I’ve never been to it. I liked competing, and even my last year skating pro I liked performing, But I never liked training, and I don’t like cold either. So how I got as far as I did in skating, I don’t know [laughs]. But when I skate now, if I skate around the rink fast and hard, I’m dying. I can go on the Stairmaster for an hour at level 10 and not be as tired as I am skating around the rink once. It’s a sport that people underappreciate because they have no idea how hard it is.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

2 comments on “Episode #30: Debi Thomas

  1. Alex McGowan says:

    Terry Head called me and told me to listen your Ice Capades interview. I did not realise that I had blabbered on for so long. I was sad to hear some of Debi’s interview with you. It is obvious that she has had to deal with the Olympic long for most of her life. Her reasons, excuses etc. just went on and on. For instance she remarked that the things I said to her were not what she wanted to hear and yet I said the same things to her when she won worlds. She is the one who chose to return to Boulder as “I want to be with Brian.” Brian was not at the opening but went there with her on the final week. She mentions to you that at the same time she had “a Hungarian Ice Dancer boyfriend”. I did not know that. A love triangle at the Olympics? Would that be added stress. What a great question. Also, you you did not ask her about the “secret wedding” the day before she left for Worlds or the team meeting when she was told she could leave and that Joan Campbell was fully trained and could be on the next flight to Budapest. (Debi had just met with the press and told them that she didn’t want to be there and that her coach and agent had forced her to come to World’s.) She later agreed to stay but later missed the Long practice due to going out drinking with some Stanford friends. Anyway, it was fun meeting with you and doing your interview. Terry Head and I just returned from the Holiday on Ice Reunion in Nice and was it ever NICE. Best Wishes Alex

  2. allison says:

    Hi Mr McGowan! Thanks for listening, to both podcasts. I actually try to make a point of not asking personal questions and just keeping it to the skating, so that’s why i didn’t pursue any more questions on that front. She offered a lot of information about what was going on at the time in her personal life, but I didn’t want to pry. I’m sorry to hear that your version of events differs so much from hers. I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to post your comments above live onto the website, so please let me know if you want these comments made public or not. [edited to add: he allowed this]

    I loved speaking with you, and would love to do a full interview with you sometime if you’re interested! And I’m glad you had a terrific time at the HOI Reunion. Thanks so much for being so generous with your time at the Ice Capades Reunion. I really appreciate it!

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