The Caesars Tribute: A Salute To The Golden Age Of American Skating

Source: Tom Briglia / Getty

Debra Janine Thomas (born March 25, 1967) is an American former figure skater and physician. She is the 1986 World champion, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, and a two-time U.S. national champion. Her rivalry with East Germany‘s Katarina Witt at the 1988 Calgary Olympics was known as the Battle of the Carmens.

Early life

Thomas was born in Poughkeepsie, New York and grew up in San Jose, California. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mother worked as a computer programming analyst in Sunnyvale, California.

Skating career

Thomas started skating at age 5 in San Jose. She competed in her first figure skating competition at age 9, finishing in first place. From then on, she was hooked on competitive skating. She attributes most of her success to her mother who sacrificed to drive her over 100 miles a day between home, school, and the ice rink.

As a young child, Thomas was coached by Barbara Toigo Vitkovits at Eastridge Mall in San Jose.  At age 10, Thomas was introduced to Scottish skating coach Alex McGowan. In 1983, she began to represent the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club, which launched her career. McGowan would remain her coach until she retired from amateur competition at age 21.

Thomas won both the 1986 U.S. national title and the 1986 World Championships; those achievements earned Thomas the ABC‘s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year award that year. She was the first female athlete to win those titles while attending college full-time since Tenley Albright in the 1950s. She was the first African-American to hold U.S. National titles in ladies’ singles figure skating. Thomas was a pre-med student at Stanford University during this time although it was unusual for a top U.S. skater to go to college at the same time as competing. That year she received a Candace Award for Trailblazing from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.

Debi Thomas - 1985

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In 1987, Thomas suffered with Achilles tendinitis in both ankles and struggled at the U.S. Nationals, placing second to Jill Trenary. She rebounded at the World Championships, finishing a close second to East German skater Katarina Witt.

Thomas relocated to Boulder, Colorado in the winter of 1987–88 to prepare for the Olympics.  In January 1988, she reclaimed the U.S. national title. At the 1988 Winter Olympics held in Calgary, she and Katarina Witt engaged in a rivalry that the media dubbed the “Battle of the Carmens“, as both women skated their long programs to the music of Georges Bizet‘s opera Carmen. Thomas skated strong compulsory figures and performed well in the short program to an instrumental version of “Something in My House” by Dead or Alive. In the long program, she made mistakes on a number of jumps and placed fourth in that segment of the competition. Overall, she finished third and won the bronze medal, behind Witt and Canadian skater Elizabeth Manley (Thomas fell from first place going into the long program to third place overall in the final standings).  By winning the bronze medal, Thomas became the first black athlete to win any medal at the Winter Olympics. Thomas won the bronze medal at the 1988 World Championships and then retired from amateur skating. She performed for Stars on Ice and won the 1988 World Professional Championships in Landover, Maryland.  She also won the title in 1989 and 1991.

In February 1989, Thomas ranked 12th in the Q Score athlete standings, the only woman in the top 22.[1]She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000. She was also selected by President George W. Bush to be part of the U.S. Delegation for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin Italy along with other former Olympians: Dorothy HamillEric HeidenKerri Strug, and Herschel Walker. Thomas returned to the ice briefly to participate in “The Caesars Tribute: A Salute to the Golden Age of American Skating”, an event which featured many of the greatest legends and icons of American figure skating.

Thomas completed a triple toe-triple toe combination which was rare for a female skater in the 1980s.

Medical career

Thomas expressed interest in becoming a doctor from an early age. She studied at Stanford University during her competitive career until her move to Boulder, Colorado during the 1987–88 season, and had resumed her studies by 1989. She graduated from Stanford in 1991 with a degree in engineering and from the Northwestern University   Feinberg School of Medicine in 1997. Thomas followed this with a surgical residency at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital and an orthopedic surgery residency at the Martin Luther King Jr./Charles Drew University Medical Center in South Central Los Angeles.

Thomas went on to become a practicing orthopedic surgeon specializing in hip and knee replacement. In June 2005, she graduated from the Orthopedic Residency Program at Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles. She spent the next year preparing for Step I of the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ exam and working at King-Drew Medical Center as a junior-attending-physician specialist. In July 2006, she began a one-year fellowship at the Dorr Arthritis Institute at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, California, for sub-specialty training in adult-reconstructive surgery. In September 2007, she began working at Carle Clinic in Urbana, IllinoisDuring her medical career, while she was skilled at doing the procedures and well-liked by patients, she had difficulty working with other doctors due to her personality, and went from clinic to clinic, never staying longer than one year.

As of December 2010, Thomas was in private practice at ORTHO X-cellence Debra J. Thomas, MD, PC in the diminishing coal-mining town of Richlands, VirginiaHowever, the practice soon fell behind on its bill payments due to the sparse and poverty-stricken population of the area and Thomas’ lack of business experience, and has ceased operation.

Personal life

Thomas married Brian Vander Hogen on March 15, 1988 in Boulder, Colorado.  After their relationship ended, she married a sports attorney, Chris Bequette, in autumn 1996.  Before divorcing, they had a son named Christopher Jules “Luc” Bequette (b. 1997), a Berkeley defensive tackle (2015-).  She and fiance Jamie Looney now live with his two sons, Ethan and Austin in southwest Virginia.

Thomas was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by April 2012.   In November 2015, reports stated that she was living in a bed bug-infested trailer in the Appalachian mountains with her fiance who was struggling with anger and alcohol issues. Thomas stated that she was “broke”, having lost most of her savings through her two divorces and failed medical practice, and had lost custody of her son when he was 13. She was featured in the November 7, 2015, episode of the television seriesIyanla: Fix My Life, on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Thomas is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.