When I was a kid, I can distinctly remember watching Debi Thomas compete at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta Canada. Despite the fact that she was beat out by Katarina Witt and Elizabeth Manley for the gold and silver, respectively, her unique story stood out.
For example, it was even more uncommon than it is today to see an African-American woman competing in figure skating at such a high level (in fact, she was the first African-American to win a medal in any event at the Winter Games). It was even more impressive that this dynamo was also a surgeon. Indeed, it seemed like Debi Thomas had it all and, maybe, for a little while, she did. Unfortunately, that’s definitely not the case now.
Loss of Practice
As she tried to establish a life outside of figuring skating, her husband found it difficult to live in the public eye. Their relationship ended and Thomas considered it a personal failure. With her focus firmly on medicine, she set her expectations too high and found herself competing with colleagues. As a result, she was let go from two great positions.
In an effort to save her career, Thomas opened a private practice in Richlands, Virginia, as a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. A second divorce came around this time and the financial fallout cost her the nest egg that she had saved. After just two years, she closed her clinic’s doors for good.
Living in a Trailer
Currently, the former Olympian and physician is unemployed and living in a bed-bug infested trailer with her fiancé and his two children in the Appalachian Mountains. She has lost custody of her own 13-year-old son.
Iyanla Vanzant, host of OWN’s Iyanla: Fix My Life went to speak to Thomas and the conversation was a little surprising. “You got to a point where you couldn’t afford to do anything other than live in a trailer. Is that what I’m hearing you say?” Iyanla asked.
“Yeah, I guess that’s about right,” Thomas admitted. When asked how she feels about her current living conditions, the two-time U.S. national champion says “frustrated.”
The answer clearly shocks Vanzant who counters: “Frustrated? Not sad, not angry, not ashamed?” When Thomas responds with “no,” the host continues: “Not guilty that you’ve got a man, two kids and a bedbug infestation in a trailer? Frustration is what you feel? Nothing else?”
When it’s clear that Thomas is sticking by her original sentiment, Vanzant concludes: “This is what I know: You’re living in a trailer in the Appalachian Mountains and your son ain’t with you! You’re raising somebody else’s children! So, you can tell me whatever you want to tell me. Telling yourself the truth is important.”
During the episode which aired on Saturday, November 7, 2015, Thomas revealed that her fiancé, Jamie Looney, has anger management issues and a drinking problem. The 48-year-old identifies herself as a victim of domestic violence.
Inside Edition’s Megan Alexander sat down with the couple and asked Jamie if he had abused Debi. He responded by saying: “yes, I did. She abused me. I abused her.” This prompted Thomas to admit: “I punched him in the face.” Despite the admission, Thomas believes that “Jamie is a great man” and that “he’s got a sweet heart.”
It may seem that Debi Thomas is slightly oblivious to her circumstances or the current state of her life but she does know enough to say that she shared her experiences as a cautionary tale, of sorts, for others. She stated: “I’m an example that this could happen to anyone, anywhere. Anyone who thinks they are safe and has got it under control, they are not.”
Hopefully, the feedback she has received from Iyanla Vanzant and others will make enough of a difference for Thomas to make some much-needed changes to her life.