Born in New York in 1967, Debi Thomas started ice skating at an early age. She became the first African American to win a non-novice title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and in 1988 she was the first black athlete to earn a medal at the Winter Olympics. Thomas graduated from Stanford University and became an orthopedic surgeon, before her struggles with her post-skating life were revealed in 2015.
Born Debra Janine Thomas on March 25, 1967, in Poughkeepsie, New York, Debi Thomas is best known for becoming the first African American win a medal at the Winter Olympic Games in 1988. Thomas first stepped into the skating rink at the age of 5. By age 9, she was taking formal lessons and winning competitions. At 10, Thomas signed on with coach Alex McGowan, who guided her career as she trained for the Olympics.
As an African-American figure skater, judges often discriminated against Thomas, giving better marks to her competitors for what many saw as less-impressive skills. She persevered, however, and at the age of 12, she advanced to the national novice finals, where she won the silver medal.
Leading American Skater
Debi Thomas pursued higher education while continuing to skate competitively. As a freshman at Stanford University, where she studied engineering, Thomas scored two major career victories. In February 1986, she took the senior women's title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships—becoming the first African American to win a non-novice title. That same year, Thomas earned the top spot at the World Championships.
In 1988, Thomas competed at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. She won the bronze medal in the women's figure skating event (finishing behind Canada's Elizabeth Manley and East Germany's Katarina Witt), thereby becoming the first African American to win a medal in any sport at the Winter Olympics. That same year, Thomas once again won the U.S. Championships.
Life After Olympics
In 1991, Thomas earned her bachelor's degree from Stanford University. She retired from skating the following year in order to enter Northwestern University Medical School. After graduating from Northwestern in 1997, Thomas decided to continue her medical training to become an orthopedic surgeon.
After completing her residency at Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles, California, she received a fellowship at Centinela Hospital's Dorr Arthritis Institute in Inglewood. In 2010, Thomas opened her own practice in Virginia, specializing in knee and hip replacements.
Over the years, Debi Thomas has received many accolades for her contributions to figure skating. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000, and served as a representative for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Additionally, Thomas became an active supporter of several charities, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation.
Thomas dropped out of the spotlight for many years, and when she resurfaced in late 2015, fans were surprised to learn how her life had taken a turn for the worse. Thomas had been forced to close her practice, and with her savings gone and custody of her teenage son relinquished following two divorces, she revealed she was living in a bedbug-infested trailer with her fiancee and his two sons. The news came to light after the once-celebrated athlete reached out to motivational coach Iyanla Vanzant, the star of the reality show Iyanla: Fix My Life, with the hope of turning things around.
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