Debbie Thomas is an accomplished figure skater who has compiled a long, almost inexhaustible list of achievements in this sport. She made history as one of the rivals in the 1986 “Battle of the Carmens” with Katrina Witt. She also won the bronze medal in that competition and became the first black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. She is also the 1986 World Champion and two-time National Champion of the USA. A few years after the Olympic Games she became a licensed physician.
Nowadays, however, the Olympic athlete seems to have taken a break and is simply basking in the glory of her Olympic history. Learn all about her professional success and how she lost everything.
Debbie Thomas Biography
Debra Janine Thomas was born on March 25, 1967, in Poughkeepsie, New York, the daughter of McKinley Thomas, a computer program manager, and Janice Thomas, a computer program analyst in Sunnyvale, California. She grew up in San Jose, California, but moved with her mother after her parents divorced in 1974.
There is no available information about her early education, but she is as academic as she is athletic. Debbie Thomas began skating at the age of 5, and four years later she won her first figure skating competition. With the result of the competition, she realized that the sport was her strength and she was addicted to it.
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Career Achievements: Rise To Fame
Her first tutor was Barbara Toigo Vitkovits at the Eastridge Mall in San Jose. Scottish coach Alex McGowan took Toigo’s place when Debbie was 10 years old and led her career until her Olympic victories. Her career was launched a few years later when she began representing the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club in 1983.
In all the years of her career, she has participated in hardly any competition where she has not distinguished herself. All she had to do was go out there and do her stuff, and the trophies rolled in. While studying at Stanford University, Debbie Thomas won the U.S. National Title and World Championships in 1986, making her the first athlete to win these titles as a full-time student since the 1950s. In return, she received the ABC’s “Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year” award.
She was also the first African-American to hold national U.S. titles in women’s individual figure skating and received a Candace Award for Trailblazing from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
While the trophies were flowing in streams, as in any other sport, Thomas suffered several injuries. In 1987, she had Achilles tendonitis in both ankles, which hindered her performance at the U.S. Nationals; she finished second in the competition. However, she recovered almost immediately at the World Championships. Although she finished second behind the East German figure skater Katarina Witt, it was very close.
Debbie Thomas appeared at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, in February as the first black figure skater at the Olympic Games. To prepare for the competition, she moved to Boulder, Colorado, in the winter of 1987-88, while studying medicine at Stanford. Prior to that, she reclaimed the national title from the USA in January 1998. During the competition, she engaged in a skating rivalry with Witt, informally referred to in the media as the “Battle of Carmens. The name came about after the duo skated their long programs to the music of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen”.
Thomas did well in the long program, but due to a misstep during her freestyle, she went from first place in the freestyle to fourth place. She finished third overall behind Witt and Canadian figure skater Elizabeth Manley and won the bronze medal. She became the first black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics, achieving international fame. Although she did not take the gold medal home with her, she conquered the hearts of the spectators with her spirit, her athleticism, and her unsurpassed intelligence.
This outstanding skater also performed at the 1988 World Championships, where she won the bronze medal. Debbie Thomas then retired from amateur skating at the age of 21. She then performed briefly at professional ice shows and returned to Standford where she studied as a medical student. She performed for Stars on Ice and won the 1988 Professional World Championships in Landover, Maryland. She also won the title in 1989 and 1991, the same year she earned a degree in engineering. A few years later she became an orthopedic surgeon and realized her dream of becoming a doctor.
Thomas was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000.
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How Did She Lose Everything?
Debbie Thomas had an enviable career as an athlete but unfortunately was unable to keep the other parts of her life together. A long series of trials, such as failed marriages, the loss of her surgical practice, and bankruptcy, forced Thomas to live in the shadow of her past glory. She even lost her iconic medal to pay off debts.
In March 1988 she tied a knot for the first time with Brian Vander Hogen in Boulder, Colorado, but the knots could not hold the center of her union together forever. They divorced in 1991. Her second marriage was in 1996 with a sports lawyer named Chris Bequette, with whom she had a son, Christopher Jules “Luc” Bequette, 1997. They divorced in 2010 and she lost her son in the custody battle.
Three decades after her Olympic milestone, Thomas is now struggling to make ends meet. On a reality TV show, she spoke publicly about being bankrupt and bipolar, losing her surgical practice, and living with her fiancé Jamie Looney and his two sons Ethan and Austin in Richlands, Virginia, in a bug-infested trailer. Most of their savings were lost through their divorces and failed medical practices.
Today she practices hypnosis, sells tiny gold pieces for a company called Karatbars, and is also writing her autobiography, In Right Light, It Looks Gold.