DENVER, JAN. 10 -- When the national figure skating championships concluded Saturday, the U.S. Olympic team comprised a Stanford pre-med, a Harvard undergrad and a former child actor, among other worthies. These divas and acrobats perform such feats as the triple-triple, the quad and the death drop.
The team led by two-time national women's champion Debi Thomas and men's four-time titlist Brian Boitano should be strong enough to challenge the reigning world champions next month at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Medals seem a foregone conclusion; whether they are gold remains to be seen, but in the meantime the U.S. contingent can congratulate itself on a variety and athleticism that gives it a strong chance.
"We're going to do well. I can feel it," Thomas said.
Thomas has put her sophomore year at Stanford on hold while she is polishing her routine anchored by the unusual triple-triple combination jump, which she landed perfectly Saturday night to claim the U.S. title over silver medalist Jill Trenary and bronze medalist Caryn Kadavy. The triple-triple could be the key to defeating Katarina Witt, the East German who is the reigning world and Olympic champion and has been beaten only once in the last four years, by Thomas in the 1986 world championships.
Although Thomas lost the world title back to Witt last spring in Cincinnati, she was competing there with tendinitis in both ankles. Saturday night she was healthy and in marvelous form as she beat Trenary, the defending U.S. champion who had upset her last season.
"I didn't come here just to win the title back," Thomas said. "I wanted to give a major performance so I could get everyone thinking, 'She's really got a chance at the Olympics.' "
Thomas' performance to the opera "Carmen" was not the one she wanted, leaving room for improvement with scores of 5.8 and 5.9 out of a possible 6.0 as she completed just four of her usual six triple jumps. That did not concern her much. Asked if it approached her best work, she merely replied, "Nah."
The good news was the triple-triple, which Thomas nailed. The jump comes in the first 15 seconds of the routine, and observers at Calgary will want to watch carefully; if she lands it again she could be on her way to gold.
"That's the biggest, most important move in the program," Thomas said. "For some reason if I hit that, I feel like I can do anything."
A second medal could well come from either Trenary, a gritty presure skater with a classical bent, or Kadavy, the balletic world bronze medalist who sometimes has trouble staying on her feet. They are the prote'ge's of Carlo Fassi, the master coach who has produced champions ranging from Peggy Fleming to Dorothy Hamill.
According to Fassi, Witt has two vulnerabilities: her notoriously weak compulsory figures and a jump combination in her short program that she has trouble landing. If she stands fourth or lower after the compulsories, that could open the door for Trenary and Kadavy. If not, they will be relegated to competing for lesser medals against Canada's Elizabeth Manley and Japan's Midori Ito.
Boitano's feelings about his fourth straight national title were mixed, and so was his skating as he won the gold over Harvard student Paul Wylie (silver), and Christopher Bowman of Los Angeles (bronze).
But overall the 24-year-old from Sunnyvale, Calif., considered it a valuable precursor to Calgary, and much preferred making his mistakes here than in the Olympics. Most important, he garnered rave reviews for his arty new look with a long program to Carmine Coppola's "Napoleon." A cyclical skater who tends to plan his peaks carefully, Boitano said it can work to his advantage having gotten a subpar performance out of the way here.
"I think it's something that happened for a reason, so that I can be better next month," he said. "I like to have a breakdown, I've noticed it always goes up and down. As soon as I'm great, I know I'm ready to fall."
Boitano's quadruple remains the most curious issue going into Calgary. He said he will decide by next week whether to include the unprecedented four-revolution jump in his Olympic long program, depending on how well he completes it in practice and whether he can convince coach Linda Leaver, who would rather he wait until the world championships in March.
Wylie, a Harvard sophomore majoring in international relations, made the Olympic team by conquering a habit of falling in the national event the last three years. Bowman, 20, is a charismatic skater who has a background as a child actor in Los Angeles, and currently can be seen doing a cameo as a vampire in the film "The Lost Boys."
Both represent potential heirs to Boitano and can surprise audiences with their little-known grace. They will probably not be factors against Canadian world champion Brian Orser and the Soviet Union's world bronze medalist Alexander Fadeev.
In pairs skating, a second national championship for Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard marked them as the sure heirs to 1984 Olympic silver medalists Kitty and Peter Carruthers and top challengers to the dominant Soviet pairs.