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06/18/91

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Olympic medalist Debi Thomas graduates from Stanford

STANFORD -- The black robe and mortarboard were a far cry from her dazzling skating attire, but for Debi Thomas, the feeling of achievement was the same.

"I think I grew up a lot here," said the former Olympian and professional figure skater, shortly after receiving her bachelor's degree in general engineering and product design at Stanford University on June 16.

"When I look back to when I was a freshman and I had no idea what was going on at all . . . from that point to now, there's been an incredible change in my life. I'm really glad I came here."

Now 24, Thomas entered Stanford as a freshman in the fall of 1985, intending to become a physician. Just four months later, she won the U.S. national figure skating title, and a month after that, the world title.

By the time the 1988 Calgary Olympics rolled around, she was labeled "America's Sweetheart" on the cover of Time magazine. Reporters and fans were captivated by her physical presence -- she was the first black woman ever to make the U.S. Olympic figure-skating team -- and by her dogged insistence on becoming the first American female skating champion in 30 years to attend college while competing.

Looking back, Thomas said that winning the bronze medal in those Games was less disappointing than many people think.

"I was prepared to retire after the Olympics, win or lose," she said. "Just having school and knowing that I was going to have a life after that really made it so it wasn't so traumatic."

Buoyed by her new husband, Brian Vanden Hogen, whom she met while training in Colorado, Thomas returned to Stanford in the fall of 1988, more determined than ever to master the academic side of her life.

It wasn't easy. In addition to skating professionally on weekends, she took a demanding schedule of pre-medical courses and twice changed her major, from microbiology to biology, and finally to engineering. As late as two weeks before graduation, she had seven incomplete course grades to clear up.

She credits her adviser, Ruby Mason of the Undergraduate Advising Center, with making the road smoother.

"In general, most of my professors were very willing to help," she said, "but Ruby was probably the most influential in helping me to make it through and make the right decisions."

Thomas, who recently bought a house near Half Moon Bay, plans to take the next year off to earn some money skating professionally, and to prepare her applications for medical school.

Her ultimate goal is to be an orthopedic surgeon, using engineering skills to design and implant artificial ligaments. She also dreams of starting a training and education facility for young athletes, "so that kids can stay in school while they're doing their sport, without having a lot of tension from one side or another."

Coming to Stanford, she said, "kept me from thinking that my life revolved around my skating. I've been with a lot of athletes who didn't have the school experience, and they really don't realize that there is life besides skating.

"A lot of my friends at Stanford were in all different kinds of majors; they weren't necessarily premeds or engineers. Being around people with various interests is very healthy -- that's why people should go to universities. I think it's a must."

-tj-

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