Debi Thomas puts school before skating, as always

December 06, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

ALL DEBI THOMAS wants to do is reach her goal -- which has nothing to do with skating at all.

The 24-year-old former Olympic skater is eyeing medical school and still hoping to become an orthopedic surgeon. She graduated from Stanford University in June and wants to resume studies next year.

"School was probably more important to me, at least as far as my future was concerned," this world-class skater said. "I always did skating to the best of my abilities, but I didn't want it to take over."

Is there life after the Olympics? For Thomas, yes. She juggled a full-time undergraduate load with a part-time professional skating career, which at one point amounted to 20 shows a year -- too much, considering a full-time skater goes to 30 of them. But she's always been a person who pushed herself to do the impossible. For her Stanford University application, which asked her to describe herself in one word, she wrote, "INVINCIBLE."

"I don't know if I'm invincible now," she said. "I look back at that and laugh. But in a lot of ways, I am. It's not like being Superman, but being able to come through at the end and still have your dignity."

It's been three years since the 1988 Winter Olympics, where she missed a triple-triple combination seconds into her routine and finished with a bronze medal, after Katarina Witt of East Germany and Elizabeth Manley of Canada. It's a topic she'd rather not bring up.

"I really didn't perform my best there, and it's not something I want to talk about," she said. "It had a lot to do with Debi Thomas not being what she has always been."

She again placed a disappointing third at the 1988 World Figure Skating Championships, held in Budapest, Hungary, right after the Olympics. And she got married, to the world's surprise.

Then she bounced back. She turned professional and won the 1988 and 1989 World Professional Figure Skating Championships at the Capital Centre in Landover.

She returns Saturday to compete against Denise Biellmann, Caryn Kadavyand Rosalynn Sumners for the ladies' title.

Thomas has spent most of her life alternating between studying and skating. She confesses she's spread herself thin at times.

"There's so many things that I've done that people say were impossible," she said. "I was going full-time at a university and became world champion at the same time. Everybody said that was impossible, but I managed somehow. To me, graduating from Stanford was impossible, but I managed somehow."

Earlier this year, two weeks before graduation, Thomas was taking final exams for an 18-credit load as well as finishing seven incompletes she had received in classes she missed because of competitions and the Olympics. She had to track down her former professors and finish papers from three years back.

"So I was calling all of these professors, some of whom had fallen off the face of this Earth, Federal-Expressing papers across the country," she said. "It was nuts."

It didn't help that she and her husband of three years -- Brian Vanden Hagen, whom she had met in Colorado while training for the Olympics -- had decided to divorce during final exams.

"It's probably better, because I'm just so much into reaching this goal and it was hard for him to put up with," she said.

And in September, her former skating coach, Alex McGowan, announced he was going to sue Thomas for back pay.

"I really shouldn't talk about it because I don't want anything of defamation of character for him or myself," she said. "But I think it's just a misunderstanding between him and me. I don't think he knows what goals I had out of skating. I don't think he understands one of the reasons I skate now is to get an education."

In interviews, McGowan has said that he had an unwritten arrangement about working with Thomas after the 1988 Winter Olympics.

"We never had an agreement that he would get anything after it was over," said Thomas. "My mother said she never took anything from him. She never wanted anything from him because she was too proud.

"If you're a skating coach, you do it for the kids," she said. "If I'm going to be a coach, I wouldn't expect anything, be given anything in return, other than being there for them."

She's made El Granada, Calif., 20 minutes south of San Francisco, her home. She lives by herself with two cats in a three-bedroom house.

She says she has applied to 34 medical schools, "because I didn't think I would get in." Her top choice is Stanford Medical School, but she's also applied to all the schools in California, some in Chicago, where her friends live, and in this area, the University of Maryland and Georgetown University.

And for all the world to know, Thomas says she is a human being, fallible, prone to mistakes and apt to fall flat on her face.

"I'm a real person, like everybody else," she said. "Pretty much all I want out of life is to do my best and to reach the goals that I set for myself. I don't want people to think I'm a prima donna because I went to the Olympics, because I'm none of that."

The NutraSweet World Professional Figure Skating 4 Championships at the Capital Centre in Landover is scheduled = at 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $22.50 and $35. Call 481-6000.

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