Figures and Fancy Skating

Debi Thomas dusts off her skates to compete in the 2023 World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships

By Troy Schwindt

What Dr. Debi Thomas has accomplished in her life is simply epic.

An Olympic medalist, two-time U.S. champion and World titlist in the 1980s, Thomas left competitive and then professional skating and became a renowned orthopedic surgeon. In 2015, she detailed personal struggles in a television program, back when she lived in Virginia.

Now 56 years old, Thomas has come full circle. She embarked on her latest challenge: competing at the 2023 World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships on black ice in Lake Placid, New York, last fall.

Shepherd Clark and Debi Thomas. Clark is wearing a black baseball cap and a purple collared shirt with a black jacket over top. Thomas (right) is an older Blaxk woman wearing a black blazer
Shepherd Clark (left)and Debi Thomas (right)

Nothing, she said, compares to how she felt taking on this monumental challenge after having not competed in figures for 35 years or skating at all in 12 years. She was the winner of the last two figures ever skated at the Olympic Winter Games in 1988. Encouraged by her close friend and avid figures and fancy skating proponent Shepherd Clark, Thomas made the bold decision to compete in the ninth annual event, held at the historic 1932 rink where the first U.S.-held Olympic Winter Games took place.

“Shepherd has been trying to get me to do these championships for many years and I’ve said no because I knew how hard it would be,” Thomas said. “I’ve done a lot of challenging things I my life; this is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. … Putting myself out there to do a lot of figures that were not the figures that I did back when I was competing … it’s challenging enough doing those figures without trying to do the figures that are completely new to you [exp. the Maltese Cross and Quad Cupcake].”

As she’s done throughout her life, Thomas delivered precise figures (six sets) and a moving fancy skating performance to the gospel song “Amazing Grace,” finishing second in the field of eight women. Marianne Tisch of the U.S. won her third consecutive title, while Beth Woronoff, representing Mexico, captured the bronze.

“If I put my mind to something, I’m just going to go out and do the best I can,” said Thomas, who was the world's first person of African descent, to medal at an Olympic Winter Games in 1988. “Shepherd is much more competitive than me; I don’t care about that. I wanted to do a respectable figure out there, because I very well could have laid out a disaster, so for me to actually hold it together for the whole competition and do pretty close to the best I could do, including landing my Axel in my fancy skating, it was huge for me.”

Accepting the Challenge

Thomas’ debut at the World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships hopefully will help inspire other former elite-level skaters, top athletes and avid competitors to give the championships a try, she said, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary in October, again in Lake Placid. This year also marks the 100-year anniversary of the first Olympic Winter Games, in which figures was a contested event.

“Landing my Axel in my fancy skating was huge for me and huge for the championships because there really hadn’t been a skater with a World title and Olympic medal who has had the guts to come in and do this competition,” Thomas, who lives in Florida, said. “There have been people who have considered it and they are like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is too hard, what’s at stake, what if I don’t win, and all of those things that go through people’s minds.

“What really got me to thinking about doing this, I was watching some of the films from the previous [U.S.] Championships and seeing what some of my contemporaries had come in and done and competed, and I was like, ‘That’s really hard,’” she said. “Figures is something that I’m telling people is a super-human skill. Now that I’ve come back and I’m trying to relearn these and do them again, I’m like, ‘They should give medals for every figure — it’s that challenging. I think we took it for granted back when we were competing these figures, but we were working four hours a day perfecting these figures and we had this slew of figures we had to master, and now trying to do a waltz-eight is like — impossible. I realize now that this component of skating I don’t want to see become extinct. The mastery of figures is something I would love to pass on to another generation and make figures cool and make it something that can really enhance a skater’s overall performance.”

The fancy skating portion of the event also holds a special place in her heart. A three-time World Professional champion (1989–91), Thomas loves the “purity” of a skater’s performance, without having the pressure of landing the big jumps.

Back in the heyday of the World Professional Championships, two-time Olympian and renowned announcer Dick Button delivered introspective analysis of the competition.

“He had a very famous line when Dorothy Hamill performed her “Pie Jesu” number in a professional competition (1995); he said, ‘She’s a better skater now than she was when she competed at the Olympics.’

“Obviously she was an amazing competitor, but as she matured and graduated from that part of her skating career and became a professional, nobody can forget going to these World Professional Championships and having the announcer go, ‘10, 10, 10!’ That was something that was an emotional experience for the audience, for the skaters and that’s what world figure sport means; it’s a way to celebrate the world’s greatest skating artists, and we have a lot of them.”

Figures Steeped Deep in History

While Thomas holds the name recognition in this partnership, Clark is the one out front promoting the history and carrying the torch for figures and fancy skating as the 10th anniversary of the competition nears.

“It’s so addicting,” Clark said. “I love it today in a new way. We want to invite everyone with U.S. Figure Skating, the ISU, the whole world of skating to the 10th anniversary championships.”

Clark, the 1989 U.S. junior champion and 1989 World Junior silver medalist, as well as a 1998 Olympic and World Team alternate, has competed in all nine of the World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships. He’s well-versed when it comes to explaining how the World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships got its name, its relevance and its history. 

The name of the event, he said, comes from a book with the same title (Figures and Fancy Skating) written by George A. Meagher in 1895. Meagher was a professional performing champion in the late 1800s and is credited for introducing hockey to Europe.

The World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships, meanwhile, was the brainchild of the Kelly family from Canada, who had three generations of champions in hockey, speed skating and figure skating. U.S. pairs Olympian Karen Courtland Kelly, wife of Canadian Olympic speedskater Patrick Kelly, is the first female Olympian to teach skating artists the sport of figures and fancy skating, in Lake Placid. She has trained many skaters to represent their country at the World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships.

Since the Kelly family launched the event in 2015, they have had the endorsements of notables like Hamill, Button and TV sports pioneer Doug Wilson. Many other greats including Janet Lynn, Trixi Schuba and Don Jackson have also put their name behind this world figures movement and have stepped up to judge the championships.

The event in Lake Placid on the 1932 rink also meant a return to black ice, which was the original color of ice surfaces when the sport was first created, before the surfaces of indoor rinks were painted white beneath the ice. The black tint to the ice allows spectators and judges to better see and interpret the results of skaters’ figures performances.

The 1932 rink also holds special meaning as the most decorated competitive and show skater in history, Sonja Henie, of Norway, won the second of her three Olympic gold medals there in 1932.

“It’s the fastest, smoothest ice in the world,” Clark said. “It’s surreal to be in that rink, where Sonja Henie (also an A-list movie star) won one of her gold medals. She was so famous as a teenager at that time; she was such an anomaly that people came to see her because the idea of a superstar, a girl, being world famous on her own merits, was basically unheard of. I also heard she sold out all of her shows because people didn’t have the opportunity to see an A-list movie star in person and an Olympic champion, and she was both.”

Henie’s impact on ice skating is represented just outside of the 1932 rink where an ice fountain statue is erected to honor the skating icon.

What’s Next?

Generating momentum and excitement for the 10th annual World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships is a major goal for Thomas and Clark, but it’s just part of their overall mission to make ice skating the center of the world art movement.

“The reason this is important is because we want to edify the participants, the parents, the officials, the fans and excite people around the world by the uniqueness of skating, which blends the Olympics, Hollywood and the arts like no other,” Clark said. 

“We really want to promote skating as a family activity, a social activity that has a blend of fine, performing, decorative and recording art. And, of course, the fine art of figures, creating art by drawing with your entire body.”

In trying to make figures “cool,” Thomas said technology can play a big role. 

“We are evolving in a technological age, so we have all kinds of resources available to us to really present figures in a way that it has never been presented before,” Thomas said. “We have drones, all kinds of fancy AI tools and different things that we can use in new, exciting ways and make figures cool so that the next generation is wanting to learn them as they become part of the bigger skating experience.”