CALGARY, ALBERTA, FEB. 24 -- You had a great-aunt, a neighbor, an eccentric cousin who figure skated. This is not to say, in this degraded latter day of the sport, that they covered themselves with rhinestones and flung their heads back as they proceeded at shirt-fluttering speeds across the ice.

They figure skated, they didn't do free skating or ice dancing, the events that get called figure skating nowadays. They spent whole Sunday afternoons out on the town pond, not embarrassments but certainly solemn oddities as they glided along at perhaps half a mile an hour, looking backward over their shoulders at the figures they drew in the ice: figure-eights for the novices, then grapevines, Maltese crosses, their initials, their names ... off by themselves in a sort of mathematical brown study, etching the ice with designs like 19th-century penmanship demonstrations. Figures.

This is the tradition that Debi Thomas worked in so nicely today before a crowd of a few hundred, most of them lured by free tickets, curiosity and the purity of a dying sport.

"That's right, that's right," her coach, Alex McGowan, would say as she practiced while waiting to compete. She wore a sweater and blue pants, no rhinestones -- some women competed in sweat shirts. Looking splendid didn't matter, being right did. And when she wasn't, Thomas would lift her hands in a little shrug, as if to say, how can you be right in a sport where everything that is not explicitly permitted is forbidden, where skaters rarely score above 4.5 of a possible 6, where you are competing against the self-evident truths of Euclidean geometry?

The idea is to be perfect. People get perfect scores in free skating because no one can define exactly what perfect is, so who can argue, and who can resist the cheering crowds and charisma surrounding, say, a Torvill and Dean, with all their 6.0s in the 1984 Olympics? Here, perfection is horribly obvious, so no one gets close.

As America's men's gold medalist Brian Boitano has said, "You always say, 'I'm going to do the finest figure of my life,' and you never do." Boitano likes the compulsories, and in his short program in free skating, aficionados, historians and those with great-aunts on the town pond could spot him doing a quick little grapevine.

Thomas had to skate through three figures: the counter, which is three circles; the paragraph bracket, which is a figure-eight; and the paragraph loop, a small figure-eight with a little circle inside each end.

It took about nine hours for 31 women to get through these three figures. The skating of a figure took only 45 seconds or so. Then nine judges gathered in their winter coats and stared down at the tracings like people at a funeral looking into the grave of somebody they didn't know very well.

Sometimes, a man with a little broom swept away ice shavings so they could see the marks better, see how close the retracings were to the first lines, see if there were "clean edges" with no "changes" (rocking from one edge of the concave blade to another) or "flats" (both edges on the ice at once).

Thomas came into the last figure in third place, behind Kira Ivanova of the Soviet Union and East Germany's Katarina Witt, her rival for the gold medal.

The judges circled. The loudest noise in the arena was the ventilation fan. Thomas stood so still that it was an athletic event in itself, and then, with the precision of a television logo reassembling itself into another shape, a peacock into a tennis racket or something like that, she lilted into her paragraph loop. A kitten-hiss of skates here and there and then it was over, she was skating toward McGowan and shrugging again. There was a patter of applause, but the loudest noise was still the ventilation fan.

The judges lined up. The referee blew a whistle and they lifted their score cards: 3.6, 4.0, 4.0, 3.6, 3.7, 3.8, 3.8, 3.8 and 4.0, a fine performance, almost two-thirds of the way to perfection. Her three figures would make up 30 percent of her total skating score at the Olympics.

"It used to be 60 percent of the score when I was in the Olympics," said Dick Button, the ABC commentator and a U.S. gold medalist in 1948 and 1952. "I think the handwriting is on the wall, which is quite sad. They're a wonderful art form in themselves."

One problem, Button said, was that the wonderful figures your great-aunt used to do were reduced to a set series of drawings in a rule book. "It's all gotten constipated."

Now there's active talk in the skating world of doing away with figures entirely.

Said Howard Silby, assistant team leader for the U.S. figure skaters, "As a skating father myself {his daughter has been a competition skater}, I have to agree, because of the expense and time they take, and because the sport and athleticism is in the free skating, along with the public attention and the money."

At the world professional championships at Capital Centre every year, for instance, there are no compulsories.

"It can take five or six years of spending three hours a day to get good at the compulsories," said McGowan. And how many people in the world can tell how good you are, without standing next to you on the ice while you skate, and sweeping away the shavings with a little broom?

But how many people know how good physicists or theoretical mathematicians are, either? Perhaps they're the same kind of people who walk out onto the ice and stare down at the marks, nodding with respect at two-thirds of perfection, knowing the terrors of the absolute that had Thomas say sadly, when asked if she liked skating compulsory figures, "Yeah, when they're good."

Thomas was good enough in the last figure to pull into second place, ahead of Witt but behind Ivanova. She wasn't perfect, but then none of them was perfect. That's the point.

Remember? Out there past the barrel fire, and the kids playing crack-the-whip and hockey, looking over her shoulder at her figure-eight on the town pond, her initials ...