This Day in Black Sports History: February 8, 1986

Ronald MonestimeCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2011

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - DECEMBER 07:  Debi Thomas skates during The Caesars Tribute on December 7, 2010 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Jonathan Fickies/Getty Images for Stargames)
Jonathan Fickies/Getty Images

In a sport known for its elitist, country-club image, a young woman who had already spent more than half of her adolescent life in training burst on to the United States figure skating scene to make black sports history.  

Born in Poughkeepsie, NY on March 25, 1967, Debra Janine Thomas told her mother she wanted to skate for a living after attending an Ice Follies show as a toddler.

After the family moved to San Jose, Ca, Thomas donned her first pair of skates at the age of five and won her first competition four years later, the same year that she began taking formal lessons.

In 1975, Thomas signed on with Scottish coach Alex McGowan, but lessons had to be halted for weeks at a time when the costs for competition fees, costumes, skates, travel and the lessons themselves became too exorbitant for Thomas’ mother to keep pace with as a single parent.

Discrimination was another challenge that Thomas had to contend with during her formative years in the sport. Judges often gave better marks to Thomas' competitors, who didn’t attempt the technically difficult jumps that Thomas landed so flawlessly.

Unfortunately, this isn’t all Thomas had to endure on her path to greatness. On one forgettable occasion, the family returned home from a competition to find a cross burning on their lawn.

Nevertheless, Thomas continued to press forward, gaining a reputation for bold, fearless jumps and her self-assured style as a skater.

At the age of 12, Thomas won a silver medal in the national novice finals, which prompted her mother to allow her to take correspondence courses to finish the eighth grade so Thomas could devote more time to training.

However, after a poor showing in the junior ladies competition that year, Thomas and her mother made a vow to never allow skating to come before education.

"Right then I decided I wasn't going to put the rest of my life on the line in front of some judges who might not like my yellow dress," Thomas recalled in an interview with Time.

For the next four years, although her mother drove 150 miles a day between the ice rink where Thomas trained, Thomas’ high school, her own job and the family home, Thomas, who often did her homework in the car, maintained an excellent grade-point average.

And with offers from Harvard, Princeton and Stanford on the table, Thomas matriculated at Stanford University in the fall of 1985 with aspirations of becoming a physician.

Despite electing to study medical microbiology, a challenging, time-consuming program by any measure, Thomas continued to live up to the full-time demands of figure skating, where she garnered national and international acclaim the following year.

On February 8, 1986, Thomas successfully completed an astonishing five triple jumps to capture the United States Figure Skating Championship, becoming the first African-American to win a non-novice title.

One month later, Thomas’ star would shine brighter at the World Championships, when she took the title from Katarina Witt, the East German figure skating princess, who won the gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

In the process, Thomas became the first female athlete in over 30 years to win the U.S. Nationals and the World Championships while attending college full-time.

As a result of her historic accomplishments in 1986, Thomas won ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year Award.

During her sophomore year at Stanford, the rigorous combination of college and competition caught up with Thomas, especially in her performances on the rink.

With Achilles tendinitis in both ankles, Thomas placed second to Jill Trenary at the 1987 U.S. Nationals. Thomas would also finish second, to emerging rival Katarina Witt this time, at the 1987 World Championships.

Beginning in the summer of 1987, Thomas took a leave of absence from school to begin training for the most pressure-packed competition of her career, the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

The glare of the spotlight on Thomas was more intense in Calgary because no American woman had won a gold medal in figure skating since Dorothy Hamill in 1976.

Tension was further heightened by the hype surrounding Thomas and Witt both selecting to skate their respective long programs to the music from the Bizet opera Carmen, dubbed by the media “The Battle of the Carmens”.

"Every time I open the papers, they're trying to make this thing between me and Katarina," Time quoted Thomas as saying. "It bugs me. We're just two people."

Thomas, who entered the long program in first place, eventually succumbed to the pressure, resulting in a small error during the first minute of her performance from which she would never recover.

Thomas placed fifth in the long program standings and won the bronze medal, finishing behind two-time gold medalist Katarina Witt and Canadian favorite Elizabeth Manley.

Although extremely disappointed by her failure to win the gold medal, Thomas did become the first African-American to win a medal in any Winter Olympic sport.

Thomas would win another bronze medal at the 1988 World Championships before retiring from amateur skating at the age of 21.

Thomas was inducted into the United States 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 several other former Olympians.

Following her retirement, Thomas divided her time between her studies at Stanford and a professional career with Stars on Ice. She earned her bachelor's degree in 1991 and retired from professional tour the following year to enter the medical degree program at Northwestern University.

Thomas is now a wife, mother and practicing orthopedic surgeon in Illinois.