Activities

Fins out more: There is so much more to know about Debi Thomas, and reporter Lynn Norment wrote a wonderful profile of her in Ebony magazine, which you can find online. Thomas also has a website (www.docdebithomas.com) that is rich with photos and articles.

Discussion: We would be curious to know the extent to which Thomas was encouraged by her parents and what she attributed to her determination to excel in a field where few African-Americans have participated. She was clearly undaunted by the widespread racism and prejudice. These and other questions should create lively exchanges.

Place in context: Thomas competed mainly in the 1980s, and by this time, some of the racial barriers had already been scaled. Even so, she was a pioneer, and it raises the question of why there have been few Blacks to follow her on the ice rinks.

This Week in Black History

Feb. 17, 1942: Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton is born in Louisiana. On this same day in 1982, the legendary composer and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk dies.

Feb. 18, 2006: Speed skater Shani Davis becomes the first African-American to win the gold medal at the Winter Olympics.

Feb. 19, 1919: W.E.B. Du Bois helps to organize the first Pan-African conference in Paris.

Ordinarily, the people profiled here have joined the ancestors and are often forgotten heroes and sheroes of the past. But with the current Winter Olympics in Sochi underway, particularly with speed skater and two-time gold medalist Shani Davis—the one Black participant of note no longer a medal contender—I thought of Debi Thomas. Maybe it’s time to shift my focus a bit to celebrate a few living icons rather than summoning—however meaningful and important—figures no longer among us but who should be remembered.

While I haven’t given too much attention to the competition in Sochi, it would be nice to hear some mention of Thomas, especially as the figure skating events become more prominent. Thomas was the first African-American to win a championship contest when she participated in the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship event. She accomplished this feat twice, in 1986 and 1988. In 1986, she won the World Figure Skating Championship. At the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, in 1988, she won the bronze medal and remains the only African-American woman to achieve this feat in figure skating.

An article in Ms. magazine offered this description of her talent and physicality: “She’s perhaps the most physically powerful performer women’s figure skating has ever seen, racing along the ice at a breathtaking pace before translating that motion into a spectacular vertical leap and speed-of-light midair spin. She then lands effortlessly with the elan of a ballerina, and completes the seamless meld of artistry and athleticism that the sport has come to demand. Watch her skate for a few minutes and you quickly forget about color and academics.”

Born Debra Thomas in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on March 25, 1967, her parents are computer professionals, and it was her mother who introduced her to skating and made sure she received the best training.

“My mother introduced me to many different things,” Thomas said in an interview several years ago, “and figure skating was one of them. I just thought that it was magical having to glide across the ice. I begged my mom to let me start skating. My idol was the comedian Mr. Frick, formerly of Frick and Frack. I would be on the ice, ‘Look mom, I’m Mr. Frick.’

“When I went to my first world championship, I mentioned the story, and Mr. Frick saw it on TV. He sent me a letter and we met at Geneva [Switzerland] when I won the world championship.”

But things were not always as warm and comforting as Mr. Frick’s letter, and she often had to skate twice as well as her white competitors in order to win. Even so, the formal lessons and the subsequent coaching from Alex McGowan were enough to prepare her for the national novice finals, where she won a silver medal.

Despite the time required to perfect her skating skills, Thomas did not neglect her educational pursuits, and as a student at Stanford University, she majored in engineering. She was a freshman when she won her first two major titles. Three years after her successes in the Olympics, Thomas graduated from Stanford and then attended Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, specializing in orthopedic surgery and graduating in 1997.

For a while, she skated professionally and won several world titles and later performed as a member of “Stars on Ice.” But the medical field was very demanding, and she wanted to give that profession the same concentrated dedication she had given to skating.

“Figure skating was a pretty individual sport. I’ve grown up a lot since those days and enjoy being part of a team now. Being a doctor is about working with nurses, therapists, anesthesiologists, and I’ve learned more about team play being a doctor than when I was in sports,” she told a reporter.

After completing her residency at Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles, she received a fellowship from Centinela Hospital’s Dorr Arthritis Institute in Inglewood, Calif. Three years ago, Thomas opened her own practice in Virginia, where she specializes in knee and hip replacements.

The acclaim she has earned in the medical field has not obscured what she achieved on ice, and in 2000, she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. In 2002, at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, she served as a representative for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Among her charitable commitments is the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation. Thomas has been married twice and has one son.

“He is my greatest accomplishment,” Thomas said, speaking of her son.