Saturday, March 21, 2015

Debi Does Ice—Very Well, Thank You

Debi Thomas in her 1986 National Women's Figure Skating championship performance.

Figure skating was about the whitest sport imaginable.  OK, maybe yachting or some other contest that requires millions of dollars for the basic equipment may have been paler.  But not by much.  Then along came Debi Thomas and changed all of that.
Ever since Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill won Olympic Gold in 1968 and 1976 the sport had taken off in public popularity, especially among young girls.  ABC TV’s Wide World of Sports had even managed to keep interest up between Olympiads by regularly broadcasting the U.S., European, and World Championships every year.  And when the athletes retired from amateur competition, folks could see them in arenas in their own home towns touring with popular shows like the Ice Capades.
Debra Janine Thomas was born on March 25, 1967—the year Fleming won the fourth of her five National Championships in Poughkeepsie, New York.  She moved to San Jose, California at an early age.  By age five she had settled on two ambitions—to become a champion ice skater and a doctor.  She would succeed at both.
On the ice at 5, by the age of 9 she was taking formal lessons and winning competitions. At age 10, Thomas signed on with coach Alex McGowan, who guided her career as she trained intently for national, international and Olympic honors.  Thomas enjoyed the strong support of her mother who sacrificed much of her time driving her daughter more than 100 miles a day between home, school, and the ice rink.  In 1979 at age 12 she made her mark as national Novice Champion.
As she entered ever more serious competitions, she encountered judges who had never seen or imagined a Black skater and consciously or not were tougher on her than her white peers.  But eventually there was no holding her back.
She entered San Mateo high school where she earned top marks in a tough class load heavy on math and science in preparation for her dreamed of medical career.
In 1983 she began to represent the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club.  She competed very successfully including a second place finish at the National Champions ships and fifth place at World in 1985, but was almost universally advised that she would have to abandon college plans to concentrate on the intense training necessary to compete on the elite level.  Thomas ignored the advice in 1985 enrolled as an engineering student at prestigious and challenging Stanford University.
Her double life did not seriously impede her.  That year she won the U.S. National Senior Women’s Championship and on March 21, 1986 won the Gold Medal at the World Championships.  She was the first, and still the only, Black woman to win both.  The accomplishment also won her recognition as Wide World of Sports’ Athlete of the Year.
Although injured with tendonitis in both ankles the next year she placed second in the Nationals and second to the reigning Olympic Gold Medalist, East German Katarina Witt at the World.  Witt was to be Thomas’s great rival.
Thomas bounced back to win the Nationals for a second time in 1988 bringing fan expectations of a confrontation with Witt at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.  Now she suspended her studies to concentrate on her skating.  At the ’87 World competition Witt barely beat her on the strength of her long program.

Time reflected the intense pressure on Thomas to win Olympic gold.

The Winter games confrontation were hyped as the Battle of the Carmens as both skaters had independently chosen music from the Bizet opera for their long programs.  Thomas was ahead after the first two round winning the compulsories in which Witt placed third, and finishing second in the short program. Witt landed four triple jumps and downgraded her planned triple loop jump to a double loop in her long program. This left room for Thomas to win the long program, but Thomas missed three of her planned five triple jumps. Canadian skater Elizabeth Manley won the long program, but Witt retained her Olympic title based on her overall scores and slipped to third place to take home the Bronze Medal.
Despite being the only Black to ever medal in the Winter Olympics up to that point, Thomas’s Bronze disappointed American fans who expected, even demanded, a gold medal.  She would never ascend to the heights of adulation of Fleming and Hamill.
Thomas and Witt met again for the final time in the 1988 World Championships at which Witt again placed first and Thomas third.  At the age of 21 she retired from competitive skating.
The same year she married her college boyfriend, Brian Vanden Hogen.  They would divorce a few years later.  During the next four years she captured three World Professional skating titles and toured four years with Star on Ice.  She also returned to Stanford completing her undergraduate degree and graduating in 1993.
Thomas then went on to enroll in Northwestern University Medical School in Evanston, Illinois.  While a student there she married former University of Arkansas football player Chris Bequette.  Their son, Christopher “Luc” Jules, was born was born just after completing her demanding final year of medical school in 1997.

The doctor is in.....

She completed her 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.  She became a Board certified orthopedic surgeon and in 2006 began a one year fellowship at the Dorr Arthritis Institute at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, California, for sub-specialty training in adult reconstructive surgery.  Thomas is now in private practice in Virginia where her son is a star high school baseball player.
Although she stopped skating after leaving professional performance, Thomas remained engaged in the sport.  She occasionally has worked as a judge and a broadcast commentator.  In 2000 she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. She was named 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, Hamill, Eric Heiden, Kerri Strug, and Herschel Walker. 
Perhaps most impressively after 15 years off the ice Thomas trained for just three months to participate in the Caesar’s Tribute: A Salute to the Golden Age of American Figure Skating in Atlantic City in 2012 with a host of other U.S. National, World and Olympic Medalists in a show aired on NBC Christmas Day.  She performed an ambitious routine to music from the movie Burlesque and skated flawlessly.
Thomas also has interest in a host of charitable and social causes including acting as spokesperson for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Thomas turns 48 years old later this week.  She shows no signs of slowing down or stopping over achieving. 

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