Monday, February 8, 2016

Black History Month: Debi Thomas

Sadly, Debi Thomas has been in the news lately for being broke and unemployed.

Which is a shame, given her accomplishments as figure skater and doctor.

Debra Janine Thomas was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on March 25, 1967.  When she was five years old, she strapped on a pair of ice skates and started skating.   By the time she was nine, she was taking formal lessons and winning skating competitions.  When she was ten years old, Alex McGowan became her coach, and he was responsible for shaping her career as she headed for the Olympic Games.

Judges often discriminated against Thomas when scoring her routines, giving higher scores to skaters with skills not as impressive.  But she kept going.  At 12, in the national novice finals, she won the silver medal.

Thomas kept skating and studying.  In February, 1986--while studying engineering at Stanford University--she won the US Figure Skating Championships, becoming the first African-American to do so.  Shortly afterwards, she won the world figure skating championship--again, the first African-American to do so.

She won the US Championships again in 1988 and was favored to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics that year.  Thomas and and figure skater Katarina Witt, from East Germany, both used the music from the opera Carmen in their long program, leading the sports media to dub Thomas' and Witt's rivalry the "Battle of the Carmens".  Thomas, unfortunately, lost that battle to Witt.  Witt won the gold medal; Thomas, the bronze.  Thomas' bronze medal was the first earned by any African-American, male or female, in a Winter Olympics; a fact that the sports media seemed to gloss over.

Thomas had gotten married just a few days before the Olympics in 1988.  The newly married skater went on to earn her bachelor's from Stanford in 1991.  The next year, she retired from skating and entered medical school at Northwestern University.  When she graduated in 1997, she decided to become an orthopedic surgeon.  Over the next years, she did a residency at Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles, and received a fellowship at the Dorr Arthritis Institute, located in Inglewood.

She opened her own practice in Virginia in 2010, doing knee and hip replacements.

As a skater, Thomas received much recognition, being inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000, and being a representative for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  She also supported several charities, such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

So what happened?  What went wrong?

Her first marriage ended in divorce, Thomas said, because he "felt lost" in the middle of her fame.  A second marriage also ended in divorce, and she lost custody of her son from that marriage.

As a doctor, she lost two jobs, then opened up her own practice.  The second divorce caused her to lose her savings, and forced her to close her private practice.

Thomas' struggles are not uncommon for athletes and others who were once in the spotlight.  Any athlete needs not only physical strength and conditioning, but mental toughness as well.  Debi Thomas had both during her years in figure skating.  If she can summon up the mental toughness she had in those days, chances are that she can once again come out on top.

Sources used:

McRady, Rachel, "Olympic Figure Skater Debi Thomas Reveals She's Broke, Jobless," Us Magazine, November 9, 2015
"Debi Thomas," Biography.com website.
Capretto, Lisa, "How an Olympic Icon Ended Up Living In A Bug-Infested Trailer," Huffington Post website, November 6, 2015

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