Debi Thomas, 1988 Olympic medalist, returns to a different figure skating competition
Debi Thomas, a 1988 Olympic figure skating bronze medalist, was back on the ice in competition this past weekend at age 56.
Thomas placed second in an eight-woman field at the world figure & fancy skating championships in Lake Placid, New York.
Thomas said she returned to skating this past winter for the first time in 12 years with her eyes on this event, which did not include Olympic-level skaters.
“Coming back and doing this really is probably one of the hardest things, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said, “and I’ve done a lot of hard things.”
The figure & fancy skating championships include six sets of figures, similar to the portion of Olympic figure skating that was discontinued after Thomas’ Olympics in Calgary.
In figures, skaters trace specific patterns on the ice.
The fancy part of this past weekend’s event was similar to a free skate in the Olympics but with a focus on artistry and far less emphasis on jumps. Thomas skated to “Amazing Grace” and did perform a single Axel in her three-and-a-half-minute program. The Skating Lesson recorded it.
Thomas, who now lives in Florida, said she was determined to do an Axel, the most difficult of figure skating’s six primary jumps, even though she had a bad fall in the warm-up.
“Having been an elite athlete, it probably gave me an advantage, being able to perform under pressure. I kind of felt like that came back,” she said. “When you’re 56 years old, trying to do jumps, it’s kind of scary.”
Thomas said that a friend, 1989 World junior silver medalist Shepherd Clark, had for years lobbied her to give figure and fancy skating a try.
“I wasn’t sure that she’d follow through with it because, thinking about it myself, I’m not sure I would have followed through,” said 1988 Olympic teammate Paul Wylie, one of the judges last week. “I was very curious to see how she would approach it. She trained for it and got ready for it.”
The rivalry between Thomas and East German Katarina Witt was one of the biggest storylines of the 1988 Calgary Games.
Thomas won the 1986 World title, Witt’s only major international defeat in a five-year span. Witt won the 1987 Worlds.
In 1988, their duel was billed as the “Battle of the Carmens” as both skaters performed to free skate music from the same Georges Bizet opera.
Though Thomas led Witt after the figures, the East German scored higher in the short program and free skate for gold. Canadian Elizabeth Manley took silver ahead of Thomas.
Thomas then graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree in 1991 and from Northwestern Medical School in 1997 and became an orthopedic surgeon.
In 2015, Thomas detailed personal struggles in an Oprah Winfrey Network interview, back when she lived in Virginia.
While she since rediscovered skating, she has no plans to return to professional shows that many retired Olympians do.
“People will say, ‘Oh, it’s like riding a bike,’” she said. “No, it’s not. ... The body doesn’t easily go into the positions. You have to have an incredible amount of flexibility.”
She does hope to compete at the world figure & fancy championships again next year.
“It was emotional to see her skate, to be honest,” Wylie said. “I know she’s come through a lot. So it was really cool to see her put herself out there.”