The rise and fall of Debi Thomas, the best African-American figure skater

Theodora Aidoo Feb 15, 2020 at 08:00am

February 15, 2020 at 08:00 am | History, Women

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

February 15, 2020 at 08:00 am | History, Women

Debi Thomas, first black athlete to ever win a medal at the Winter Games - Pic Credit: imasportsphile.com/abcnews.go.com

Debi Thomas was one of the most popular female sports stars of the 1980s when she made Olympic history as the first black athlete to ever win a medal at the Winter Games.

She became the first African-American athlete to earn a medal in the Winter Olympics when she took the bronze in women’s figure skating in 1988.

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, Thomas started skating at age five. She won her first competition at age nine.

In 1986, as a freshman at Stanford University, Thomas represented the Los Angeles Skating Club, won the senior title at U.S. Nationals after finishing second in 1985. She also won the 1986 world championship, becoming the first-African American woman to win the Women’s World Figure Skating Championships.

Image result for Debi Thomas
Pic Credit: Pinterest

In honor of these feats, she was named Wide World of Sports’ 1986 Athlete of the Year. Two years later she added a second national title.

At the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Thomas missed on some jumps during her routine and finished third behind East Germany’s Katarina Witt and Canada’s Elizabeth Manley so she took bronze at the 1988 World Championships.

Thomas graduated from Stanford in 1991 with a degree in engineering. “That was probably one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had in skating. There were so many people saying that I [couldn’t] do [that] and go to school full time, and I was able to prove them wrong,” Thomas told ABC.

Debi Thomas holds medals from her skating career: (from left) her U.S. Championship gold medal, the bronze medal from the 1988 Olympics and her World Championship gold medal – Pic Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images

While she trained for the Olympics, she simultaneously pursued a pre-med degree. She graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1997 specializing in orthopedic surgery.

She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000.

Today, the pioneering figure skater has lost it all including her bronze medal which is now owned by the bank. “I lost it to bankruptcy. They can take away the medal, but they can’t take away the fact that I won it,” Thomas told New York Post in an interview.

The Skating Champion and former orthopedic surgeon has no health insurance after she declared bankruptcy in 2014. She publicly spoke out on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s “Fix My Life” and “Inside Edition” about being bankrupt, bipolar, losing her surgical practice, and living in a bug-infested trailer.  

Debi Thomas in her mobile home in Richlands, Va., with her cat, Sylvester. – Pic Credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

She doesn’t have a bank account and hasn’t made a steady income in years. “I always know that sometimes if you want to be a visionary, you’re going to have to commit to that and you may go through some financial struggles,” she said.

As of 2018, Thomas then 50 still struggled to make ends meet. She lives with her fiance Jamie Looney in a mobile home in Richlands, Virginia. “I don’t care about living in a trailer. People are so obsessed with material things, but I only care about knowledge,” she told Washington Post.

“She’s got all these degrees,” Looney said. “She’s a doctor. She’s a surgeon. And she’s here. I’ve got one year of community college. I know why I’m here. I look at her, wondering, ‘Why are you not working somewhere else?’ ”

Debi Thomas with her fiance, Jamie Looney – Pic Credit: Washington Post/Getty Images

The former skating champion has been practicing hypnosis and she sells small pieces of gold for a company called Karatbars while writing her autobiography, “In Right Light, It Looks Gold.”

She earned her certificate in Quantum Healing Hypnosis Technique, which she uses to hypnotize subjects to cure them of ailments.

Instead of skating, Thomas prefers leading seminars in Cleveland about Karatbars. “I got really detached from skating,” she said. “People who are still so focused on my skating career, I’m just like, ‘Come on,  that was 30 years ago. Why does it matter?”

 “The difference between Olympians and average people is that we’re willing to do things that others aren’t,” Thomas said. “We’re willing to look at something and do that work, no matter how long or hard.”

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