Debbie Thomas is an accomplished figure skater who compiled a long, almost inexhaustible list of accomplishments in the sports. She made history as one of the rivals in the 1986 “Battle of the Carmens” with Katrina Witt. She also won the bronze medal at the competition and became the first black athlete to win a medal in the Winter Olympics. Moreover, she is the 1986 World champion and a two-time U.S. national champion. A few years after the Olympics, she became a certified physician.
However, these days, it seems the Olympian has taken a break and is simply basking in the glory of her Olympic history. Learn all about her career achievements and how she lost everything.
Debbie Thomas – Biography
Debra Janine Thomas was born on the 25th of March, 1967, in Poughkeepsie, New York to McKinley Thomas, a computer program manager and Janice Thomas who was a computer programming analyst in Sunnyvale, California. She grew up in San Jose, California but moved with her mother after her parents got divorced in 1974.
There is no available info about her early education but she is as academic as she is athletic. Debbie Thomas began skating when she was 5 and four years later, she won her first figure skating competition. With the outcome of the competition, she realized that the sports was her forte and thus, was hooked on it.
Career Achievements: Rise To Fame
Her first tutor was Barbara Toigo Vitkovits at Eastridge Mall in San Jose. Scottish coach, Alex McGowan took Toigo’s place when Debbie was 10 and guided her career up to her Olympic winnings. Her career was launched a few years later when she began to represent the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club in 1983.
Through the years in her career, there was hardly any competition she entered that she didn’t excel in. All she needed to do was go out there and do her stuff, and the trophies roll in. In 1986, while attending Stanford University, Debbie Thomas won the U.S. national title as well as the World Championships, becoming the first athlete to win those titles as a full-time student since the ’50s. In turn, she received the ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year award.
Moreover, she became the first African-American to hold U.S. National titles in ladies’ singles figure skating and also received a Candace Award for Trailblazing from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
While the trophies were pouring in, as experienced in every other sport, Thomas suffered several injuries. In 1987, she had Achilles tendinitis in both ankles which impeded her performances at the U.S. Nationals; she finished second in the competition. However, she rebounded almost immediately for the World Championships. Although she placed second behind East German skater Katarina Witt, it was a very close call.
Debbie Thomas performed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada in February as the first black figure skater at the Olympics. To prep for the competition, she relocated to Boulder, Colorado in the winter of 1987-88, while pursuing a pre-med degree in Stanford at the same time. Before that, she reclaimed the U.S. national title in January 1998. During the competition, she engaged in a skating rivalry with Witt that the media informally dubbed “Battle of the Carmens”. The name arose after the duo skated their long programs to the music of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Thomas was doing well in the long program but due to a misstep during her free skate, she went from the first place going into the segment to the fourth. She finished third overall behind Witt and Canadian skater Elizabeth Manley and won the bronze medal. She became the first black athlete to win a medal in the Winter Olympics, consequently rising to international fame. While she did not take home the gold medal, she won the heart of viewers with her spirit, athleticism and her unmatched smarts.
The excellent skater also performed in the 1988 World Championships where she won the bronze medal. After that, Debbie Thomas retired from amateur skating at the age of 21. Following up, she performed briefly on professional ice shows and returned to Standford where she was a pre-medical student. She performed for Stars on Ice and clinched the 1988 World Professional 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, realizing her dream of becoming a medical doctor.
Thomas was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000.
How Did She Lose Everything?
Debbie Thomas had an enviable career as an athlete but unfortunately, could not hold the other pieces of her life together. A long trail of trials like failed marriages, losing her surgical practice, and bankruptcy, subjected Thomas to living in the shadow of her past glory. She even lost her iconic medal to settle debts.
She first tied the knot with Brian Vander Hogen in Boulder, Colorado in March 1988 but the knots could not hold the center of their union together forever. They got divorced in 1991. Her second marriage was to a sports attorney named Chris Bequette in 1996 with whom she had one son, Christopher Jules “Luc” Bequette in 1997. They later divorced in 2010 and she lost her son in the custody battle.
Three decades after her Olympic milestone, Thomas now struggles to make ends meet. She publicly spoke out on a reality TV show about being bankrupt, bipolar, losing her surgical practice, and living in a bug-infested trailer with her fiance, Jamie Looney and his two sons, Ethan, and Austin in Richlands, Virginia. Most of her savings was lost through her divorces and failed medical practice.
She now practices hypnosis, sells tiny pieces of gold for a company known as Karatbars. and is also writing her autobiography, titled In Right Light It Looks Gold.