CALGARY, Alberta — The moment began to slip away slowly, then quickly, unraveling with every false step of Debi Thomas’s skates. This wasn’t the ending America had dreamed about. This wasn’t Olympic magic. This was Thomas, with no one but herself to overcome, missing one jump, missing another, nearly falling to the ice, tumbling down the glory ladder, past gold, past silver.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to herself, to her coach, to us, as she skated off the ice, the reality of the moment hitting like a brick of ice: the gold medal was hers for the taking. She had given it back.

“What was wrong?” someone asked Thomas, who finished with the bronze medal behind East Germany’s Katarina Witt and Canada’s Elizabeth Manley in the women’s figure skating event of these XV Winter Olympics. “What happened?”

“I . . . just didn’t feel above my feet tonight,” she said. “It . . . just wasn’t supposed to happen, I guess.”

How sad did that leave you? How let down did you feel? Wasn’t everybody watching this? Grown men and grown women and beer drinkers and wine drinkers and kids in pajamas who got to stay up late because it was “our Debi” and
“their Katarina,” first names only at this point. Every jump brought a gulp of air and an unfinished heartbeat, every safe landing an exhale and a new pulse.

And that final moment, when she hugged her coach, Alex McGowan, and almost began to cry — well, didn’t that get to you? Were we really so tied to these ice ballerinas? How could figure skating do this to a sports fan?

Easy. From the time they lit the Olympic torch 14 days ago, this was the battle of these XV Winter Games. Sure, there were skiers, bobsledders, hockey players. But figure skating has long been the most watched of Olympic events, and when you pit East vs. West, style versus substance, beauty versus athleticism — set to the same opera music! — well, hey. What more do you want? “TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT!” read headlines across Calgary, and no one needed ask what they meant.

Hadn’t the first two portions of this competition played right into our sweaty hands? The compulsory figures, in which Witt was supposedly inferior, concluded with her merely in third place, on the tail of Thomas, in second. The short program, which many felt was clearly won by Thomas, went instead to Witt, by a fraction, with a disgusted Alex McGowan, Thomas’s coach, holding his nose at the artistic marks for his skater. “I’m concerned for Saturday night,” he had said Thursday. “I’m worried that no matter what Debi does, they’re going to mark her down for artistic merit, that the dye is already cast.”

Wasn’t that what this was supposed to be all about? The heart versus the brains? Aesthetics vs. athletics? Which would rule?

Here, on one side, was Witt, 24, the reigning World Champion, the crown jewel of the East German sports system. In the GDR, the strong not only survive, they are promoted, nurtured, schooled and groomed. It is a star-making system, and what made Witt so precious was not mere talent, but beauty. Dark, haunting looks. Full red lips. “Here,” the GDR coaches gushed,
“is something that cannot be taught. Sex appeal.”

And they flaunted it. So much so, that Witt has drawn criticism for being too much sweet, not enough sweat. “If you look at Witt’s program,” said Peter Dunfield, the Canadian coach of skater Liz Manley, “for 35 seconds she throws her wrists, head and shoulders. She does basically nothing.

“In the end, she dies for 30 seconds. She does it very well, but that’s not tough skating.”

Thomas, on the other hand, could have worn “TOUGH” on a chain around her neck. Always a technical whiz, the 20-year-old college student specifically inserted a difficult triple toe loop/triple toe loop combination near the start of her program. “Judges are supposed to give higher marks for more difficult jumps,” said McGowan. “This program is more difficult than Katarina’s.”

The opening seemed to be there after Witt’s marks flashed across the board. Although she skated her expected sultry, alluring rendition of Bizet’s Carmen, the difficulty factor was not there. One long dramatic stretch (1:16) in which Witt supposedly seduces the men of the opera, was not seductive to the judges. She received several marks of 5.6 and 5.7 for technical merit. The gantlet had been smashed for Thomas:

Be great, and the gold medal is yours.

How sad then, at that moment, that greatness did not come. Thomas had slapped the hands of McGowan just before she skated out, slapped them the way a football player might, and he said to her “You’re the best!” and surely everyone watching believed it.

But the dream began to unravel on the first combination, the difficult one, when she had trouble with the landing. Then another slip. Then a near fall. As the routine went on, you almost wanted to close your eyes, because you know what was happening, and you knew what I meant.

“I tried . . .” Thomas said to McGowan, as they sat awaiting her marks. And then later, as if to cheer herself up, she mumbled, “Well, back to school.”

Not the way she wanted it.

Not the way we wanted it.

And so it ends, with Witt on the highest of medal podiums, the East German anthem sounding the way it has sounded many times these Winter Games. And Manley, who skated the program of her life, the one Thomas wished she had skated, collecting the silver. Not the way we wanted it. But the reality is this: Olympic dreams are as thin as a skate blade and, as Thomas now knows, can easily let you down.CUTLINE: Debi Thomas slips during Saturday’s performance, dashing her hopes for a gold medal. U.S. skaters Debi thomas, right, and Jill Trenary talk as Katrina Witt looks on to practice Saturday.

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