Debi Thomas, 1st African American Woman to Win World Championship in Skating

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A Brief History

On March 21, 1986, Debra Janine Thomas made athletic history by becoming the first African American woman to take the Gold Medal at the World Figure Skating Championships.  As March is Women’s History Month, it is our pleasure to relate her story.

Digging Deeper

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1967, Debi moved with her mother to California at an early age, growing up in San Jose.  Her mother had become a single parent when she divorced Debi’s dad, but that hurdle did not stop Debi from taking up a career in figure skating starting at the age of 5.  In her first skating competition at the age of 9, Debi took First Place, an indication of what was to come.

Debi’s mom deserves special recognition for Debi’s success as a skater, working as a computer programmer and driving 100 miles each day between work, school and for Debi to practice!  Debi worked her way up the ranks of American figure skaters and placed 5th at the World Championships in 1985.  The following year, Debi made history (“herstory?”) by winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 World Championships after previously taking home the US National Championship.  Debi bested Silver Medalist Katarina Witt in something of an upset.  She was only 18 and was eager to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Debi followed up her victory at the 1986 World Championships with a Silver Medal performance at the 1987 World Championships, losing to Witt, but just barely.  The stage was set for an exciting competition at Calgary.

At the Olympics in 1988, the female figure skaters faced daunting odds in the person of Katarina Witt, the Olympic Gold Medalist from the 1984 Winter Olympics and a 4 time World Champion.  Witt, of East Germany, was perhaps the most successful figure skater of all time, of either sex.

Debi finished in 3rd place at the 1988 Winter Olympics, narrowly losing out to winner Katarina Witt and Silver Medalist Elizabeth Manley of Canada.  The 4th place finisher was not close.  Debi went on to place 3rd in the 1988 World Championships, and then retired from amateur skating at the age of 21, turning professional.

This is where the story gets even more interesting!  Debi went back to school to finish her education, graduating from Stanford in 1991, with a degree in Engineering.  Then, on course to fulfill her life’s dream of becoming a medical doctor, she attended the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, graduating in 1997.  Following medical school with residencies in surgery in Arkansas and then Los Angeles, Debi Thomas, Champion Figure Skater, became Dr. Debi Thomas, orthopedic surgeon.

Sadly, our story becomes less happy at this point, as Debi’s personal life had taken a bit of a downturn.  Married in 1988, she divorced and remarried in 1996, bearing a son to her second husband.  That marriage also ended in divorce, and with her living with a third man, this time a “fiancé,” in the hills of Virginia, she wound up broke and living in poverty after her medical practice failed.

Despite the wrong direction her life eventually took, her accomplishments on the skating rink, in the college classroom, and in the operating room are a fine body of work for this remarkable, history making woman.  We certainly wish her the best and we suspect she will rebound just fine.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite figure skater?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hines, James. Figure Skating: A HISTORY. University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Wright, Benjamin. Skating in America (1921-1996): The 75th Anniversary History of the United States Figure Skating Association. United States Figure Skating Association, 1996.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Zip2.0 of Katarina Witt during a rehearsal session in Geneva ice skating rink at the beginning of the world championship week in March 1986, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.  This image was originally posted to Flickr by zipckr at It was reviewed on 03:15, 26 August 2011 (UTC) by FlickreviewR, who found it to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0, which is compatible with the Commons.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.