The First African Americans to Win Olympic Medals

Debi Thomas

Debi Thomas, U. S. Figure Skating 1985 silver medalist.
Debi Thomas shown competing in the 1985 U.S. Figure Skating Championships where she won a silver medal. In 1988 Thomas became the first African American athlete to earn a medal in the Winter Olympics when she took the bronze in women’s figure skating.Getty Images

At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, figure skater Debi Thomas performed her four-minute program to the music of Carmen, the opera by Georges Bizet. And her rival, Germany’s Katarina Witt, chose the exact same song, with the media dubbing the famous showdown as “The Battle of the Carmens.”

While Witt won the gold, Thomas took home bronze making her the first African American woman to ever medal in the Winter Games. It was just one of many glass ceilings the 20-year-old shattered on and off the ice.

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1967, Thomas grew up in California’s Silicon Valley where her mother Janice worked as a computer programmer analyst. Ice-skating lessons for Thomas cost around $25,000 a year. With an annual salary of $35,000, Janice needed help, and Debi’s father, grandparents and stepbrother all pitched in. 

When Thomas’s coaches pressured her to leave school to practice more and opt for homeschooling, Thomas applied to Stanford instead. On a pre-med track, she was the first U.S. figure skating champion in 30 years to be enrolled in college. 

Per: History

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