First Black Olympic Figure Skating Medalist-Debi Thomas



Debi Thomas at the 1988 Winter Olympics.

When thinking about Figure Skating, notable names such as Michelle Kwan or Brian Boitano come to mind. There are many Olympic medalists that are remembered, but few often make history. Debi Thomas is history. Not only was she the first Black American to win the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship, but also the first Black person to medal at the Winter Olympics.

Born in 1967, she began skating at age five and from an early age her talent was known, but unnoticed because of her race. Thomas would sometimes face discrimination from the judges, who would give her low scores. That didn’t stagnate her drive. She continued to strive for excellence until reaching the top of the podium in 1986 when she won the United States Nationals. Thomas is still the first and only Black person to win the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, twice. Her skating success in the United States transcended to the World Championships where she won the Gold medal in 1986, and the Silver medal in 1987.

Seen as rivals with Germany’s Katarina Witt; the two competitors went back and forth between 1st and 2nd place at the World Championships between 1986-1988. At the 1988 Olympics, both Thomas and Witt chose to skate to music from the opera Carmen; which the media declared was “The Battle of the Carmens”. Thomas skated well enough to win the bronze medal, becoming the first African-American to win at the Winter Games. After the Olympics and placing third at the 1988 World Championships; Debi Thomas retired from amateur skating and would later perform in professional competitions and skate for special appearances.

Unlike most trained skaters, the ice wasn’t her entire world; and while Thomas did enjoy the attention skating brought her, she had plans for the rest of her life. During her competitive career, she was a full-time pre-med student at Stanford University; training on the ice rink for six hours a day, eating meals, and doing homework during the long drives to school and practice. Being a full-time student and training on the ice was unusual in those days.

Thomas graduated from Stanford University in 1991, and then on to Northwestern University for her medical degree; graduating in 1997 and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. She was given the distinct honor of being inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000.

The life of Debi Thomas has not been one without trials and can be seen as a cautionary tale of mental health. In 2012, after letting her medical license expire, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Thomas was featured on an episode of Iyanla: Fix My Life presented by the Oprah Winfrey network back in 2015. Life coach Iyanla Vanzant gave Thomas tough love about the conditions she was living in; hoping to inspire self-awareness and change.

Since then, she was last seen in a video posted to YouTube vacationing in Egypt and enjoying the Pyramids.

She no longer has her Olympic Medal.