A groundbreaking figure skater, Debi Thomas was remarkable for what she accomplished both on and off the ice. Born March 25, 1967 in Poughkeepsie, NY, Debra Janine Thomas began ice skating at age five, and within a few years was already winning awards. As an African-American figure skater, Thomas faced enormous amounts of pressure and discrimination as she rose through the ranks, but she differed from her peers in other ways as well, shying away from the celebrity angle of the sport and becoming a pre-med student at Stanford while competing. The stresses of simultaneously being a full-time college student, media darling and world-class athlete seemed to strain Thomas, who sometimes appeared short-tempered or gruff in interviews. In 1986, she became the first African-American to win the U.S. National Championship, and won the crown again in 1988. The skater also won the 1986 World Championships and took second place a year later. Featured on the cover of TIME magazine, Thomas was a heavy favorite at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, with much made of the so-called "Battle of the Carmens" rivalry between Thomas and East Germany's famously competitive Katarina Witt. Although she was positioned to win the gold medal after the short program, Thomas turned in a disastrous free skate and took the bronze instead, becoming the first African-American to medal in any Winter Olympics sport. After retiring from competitive skating, Thomas returned to school and went on to become an orthopedic surgeon.
By Jonathan Riggs