CALGARY -- Trying to become queen of the XV Winter Olympics, Debi Thomas was to vanish from here after the opening ceremonies Saturday. Ten days before her first performance, she wanted to rejoin her skates in Colorado and work on final preparations in private.

She has been following a plan for her life and her figure skating for years, and listening to it makes even serious achievers fret over misspent lives.

The truly driven almost always trample something valuable in pursuit of excellence. Education frequently gets sacrificed for Olympic gold; Thomas sailed through public school and, until recently, Stanford.

Her sights might be narrow but there has been time to focus on fun. She took a few days off from training in November and spent it with former roommates for the Stanford-Cal weekend, bunking on the floor.

Even her ambition is nicely tempered:

"I want to look {at striving for the gold medal} as a chance for me to leave my sport with an amazing impact, whether I win or lose. I want people to remember it . . .

"Early in the year, the Olympics seemed to be controlling my life, controlling my emotions. I realized that, intrinsically, they are just another competition. Otherwise, I might not be able to perform as well as I'm capable of.

"I had to realize that the Olympics is not going to change me as a person. That made it easier to deal with. I don't want it to be a situation where my whole life will be over if I lose."

Not that she sees herself as anywhere but on the top platform, draped in gold, when the ladies' competition ends February 27, even as a slight underdog to defending Olympic champion Katarina Witt of East Germany.

To make those final jumps and spins, Thomas has been aided by masters her background suggested would never become available -- Mikhail Baryshnikov and one of his choreographers, George de la Pena of Spain.

This is a young lady who for a year used converted roller skates for school figures. Little wonder she still is in awe of the nonpareil she calls "Misha." She quickly adds that de la Pena has been more influential, because he has spent far more time working with her.

"He makes me feel better about myself than I really do at times," Thomas said of de la Pena. "For love {portions of her performance}, he tells me to think about my boyfriend. He helps me bring out my true feelings about myself to the audience."

Thomas and Witt have been chasing one another on the ice for several years; unintentionally, they even selected the same music for their long program -- Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen."

"She's going by the book more than I am," Thomas said at a news conference Friday. "I'm going for what the character of Carmen really means inside. I don't always do what I'm supposed to do. That's the way I am. What we're doing isn't even close to the same."

Her Carmen?

"It's in three parts. The first is arrogant and moody. The second is slow, more beautiful. Deeper. Sensual. Private. The end is happy. I want everyone to be excited, joyous. That's very different from the opera."

Witt will be following the familiar script. Her Carmen also dies.

The idea for coming here, and then leaving, was to "try and get some motivation and get a feel for how things are going to be." She has skated in the Saddledome before.

She could have found ice time here, Thomas said, "but it's easier to do what I'm used to doing . . . I'm here on vacation."

No matter what happens after her Carmen, Thomas will waltz off toward an experience different than the last 10 or so years but no less hectic. She will be combining school and professional skating.

"Some more juggling," she calls it.

This bit of time manipulation will enable Thomas and her mother to see some money floating their way for a change. The books have been out of balance for ever so long, but Janice Thomas hardly minds.

She is twice divorced and makes about $35,000 as a computer program analyst. Probably, she reckons, Debi's skating runs about $25,000 a year; her education costs about $16,000.

Not since Tenley Albright graduated from Radcliffe 30 years ago has a United States champion even been enrolled in college, according to the Los Angeles Times. Like the youthful Albright, Thomas is working toward a career in medicine.

Thomas left Stanford in July for more serious training in Colorado with her coach, Alex McGowan. Still, she has found time for three courses; one of them is introductory German, not necessarily to chat more comfortably with Witt.

"I'm not sure what it'll be like when I turn pro," Thomas admits, "but I plan to go to school in the fall. Ultimately, I'd like to open my own training center. I want to practice orthopedic medicine, eventually work with skaters."

As she wants to leave Olympic sport planting an indelible memory with her final performance, Thomas also dreams grandly of her life's work.

"I want something really big," she said of the training center. "I want something I can be proud of for the rest of my life."