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The best African American figure skater in story is now broke and vital in a trailer


As Debi Thomas visited a park nearby her home, she frolicked in a sleet and called out to her fiance, Jamie Looney, who was nearby: “Look, it’s from a movie!” She was imitating a stage in “The Shawshank Redemption” in that a restrained escapes and stretches his arms external in a rain. “I’m free, don’t we get it?,” she said. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Debi Thomas, a best African American figure skater in a story of a sport, couldn’t find her figure skates. She looked around a darkened trailer, perched along a stream in a city so pennyless even a bars have closed, and sighed. The mobile home where she lives with her fiance and his dual immature boys was cluttered with dishes, stacks of documents, a Christmas tree still station weeks past a holiday.

“They’re around here somewhere,” she murmured 3 times. “I know we have a pair,” she continued, before trailing off. “Because — what did we movement in? — something. They’re unequivocally tight, though, given your feet grow after we don’t wear them for a prolonged time.” Her medals — from a World Figure Skating Championships, from a Olympics — were equally elusive: “They’re in some bag somewhere.”

Uncertainty is not a feeling Debi Thomas has mostly gifted in her 48 years. She was once so assured in her abilities that she concurrently complicated during Stanford University and lerned for a Olympics, opposite a recommendation of her coach. She was once so lauded for a buoyant beauty she voiced on a ice that Time repository put her on a cover and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” named her contestant of a year in 1986. She wasn’t usually a nation’s best figure skater. She was intelligent — means to win a competition, stay adult all night cramming, afterwards ace a exam a subsequent morning.

She wanted it all. And for a time, she had it. After Stanford came medical propagandize during Northwestern University, afterwards matrimony to a large counsel who gave her a son — who in spin became one of a country’s best high propagandize football players. Higher and aloft she went.

Now, she’s here. Thomas, a former orthopedic surgeon who doesn’t have health insurance, announced failure in 2014 and hasn’t brought in a solid paycheck in years. She’s twice divorced, and her medical license, that she was in risk of losing anyhow, lapsed around a time she went broke. She hasn’t seen her family in years. She instead inveighs opposite murky authorities in a nomenclature of swindling theorists — “the powers that be”; “corporate media”; “brainwashing” — and composes opinion pieces for a inner journal that lift headlines such as “Pain, No Gain” and “Driven to Insanity.” She thinks that hoarding bullion will isolate us from a appearing financial meltdown, and recruits people to sell pieces of bullion bullion called “Karatbars.”

There’s a required comment of how Thomas went from where she was to where she is — that of a gifted figure dismantled by inner struggles and left penniless. That was how existence TV told it, when a Oprah Winfrey Network’s “Fix My Life” and “Inside Edition” did pieces on her.

But zero is ever that elementary with Thomas. She has always bucked convention. She was a black contestant who entered a foe that had awfully few. She was a initial champion in a era to mix college and figure skating. She admitted unthinkable ambitions — such as apropos an wanderer after securing her medical class — and dared we to doubt her.


Debi Thomas with her fiance, Jamie Looney. They have endured a scattered relationship, yet have stayed together. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“She’s got all these degrees,” fiance Jamie Looney pronounced as he watched radio with Thomas inside a trailer. “She’s a doctor. She’s a surgeon. And she’s here. I’ve got one year of village college. we know given I’m here. we demeanour during her, wondering, ‘Why are we not operative somewhere else?’ ”

Such comments dissapoint Thomas. “People are all like, ‘Get a job,’ ” she said. “And I’m like, ‘You people are fools.’ I’m perplexing to change a world.”

* * *

Richlands, populated by spark miners with few mines to plunder, would seem to be an peculiar place to launch such an effort. The per capita income is reduction than $20,000, and a few industries left sepulchral in a arise of mining layoffs embody cash-express shops and pain-management clinics. Thomas, roving shotgun as Looney steers a china SUV on a new afternoon, passes several such establishments before nearing during a republic market.

She greets a store’s owners — “I usually sealed them adult for Karatbars, that will assistance them a lot,” she after says — and settles into a booth. Her hair is frazzled. She wears a big, poofy red coat. On her wrists are dual bracelets. One is stamped with “Believe.” The other, “Reimagine.”

It fast becomes apparent that Thomas, for all of her talents, is not a good storyteller.

When explaining what brought her to Richlands, she communicates in a rush of thoughts, related conjunction by chronology nor association, and exudes disappointment when listeners can’t keep up. “I’m a idealist and have an ability to put unequivocally formidable things together,” Thomas says. “And many people don’t get that.”

She says she wants to help a village she frequently describes as carrying “socioeconomic struggles.” In 2014, she launched a GoFundMe.com debate to comment a YouTube.com “show about reality” — not to be confused with a “reality TV show” — that would display life’s hardships and star Thomas. She says she also wants to enroll Richlands’ neediest as affiliates of Karatbar — that would compensate her a recruitment elect — so they could acquire “passive income” if they partisan others to sell a little bullions.

Her fiance, a jovial impoverished spark miner, sits during her side. He hasn’t pronounced much, yet looks exasperated. “I wish a normal relationship,” Looney says.

“I don’t wish to be normal,” she replies. “Normal is not utterly right. Normal is not excelling. That’s given they call it normal.”

She pauses. “I’m unequivocally misunderstood given we demeanour during a universe differently,” she continues. “You can call it a Olympian mentality.”

* * *

Excelling has always been unequivocally critical in Thomas’s family. Her grandfather, Daniel Skelton, viewed a doctorate in veterinary medicine during Cornell University in 1939, a usually African American in his class. Her mom, who apart from Thomas’s father when Thomas was 9, was a mechanism operative when a margin had few women and fewer blacks. Her brother, Richard Taylor, warranted a bachelor’s class in production from a University of California during Berkeley, afterwards a master’s in business during Stanford University.

“I theory I’m rather underachieving,” Taylor said.


Debi Thomas in her mobile home in Richlands, Va., with her cat, Sylvester. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Anyone would be when compared with Debi Thomas. Growing adult in San Jose, Taylor pronounced his sister always talked about apropos a alloy and desired mechanics. “One Halloween, she finished herself into a calculator,” Taylor said. “You would pull a buttons . . . and she would give a answer. Even as a kid, she had an engineer’s mind.”

But she also had a physique of an athlete. And after her mom took her to an ice show, Thomas guess she would give it a try. When that lark transformed into something many some-more serious, when her manager satisfied he had a expert on his hands, when she got deeper into a byzantine and fiercely domestic universe of figure skating, there came a choice. Skating — or school?

“Eighth class came along and she comes in second in a republic and her manager wanted her to quit school,” her mother, Janice Thomas, said. Instead, she enrolled in high propagandize nearby an ice course in Redwood City, Calif., and for 4 years her mom gathering 150 miles per day — school, afterwards practice, afterwards home. When she dispatched her college focus to Stanford, a word she used to news herself: “invincible.”

“Some people are told, ‘You can’t do that,’ and it crushes them,” her mom said. “Other people say, ‘I’ll uncover you.’ ”

Other pressures saddled Thomas, yet her family isn’t certain she beheld it. Taylor pronounced he sees his sister whenever commentators acknowledgement on veteran tennis actor Serena Williams’s muscles. Figure skating was — and stays — an greatly white and abundant sport, he said, and judges endorsed that Thomas “play down certain aspects of her looks,” he said. “It was couched in denunciation that a chairman creation a comments wouldn’t appreciate it racially, yet we did.”

Thomas eventually got 3 nose jobs, brought in a ballet instructor to feminize her cultured and, between a ages of 18 and 21, was deliberate a usually one able of holding down a worldwide juggernaut of women’s figure skating, East Germany’s Katarina Witt.

“She was a usually one who could unequivocally kick me,” Witt recalls.


East German figure skater Katarina Witt, right, faces her rival, Debi Thomas, before a 1988 Winter Olympics use eventuality in Calgary. Later that evening, Witt won a bullion medal. (Jerome Delay/AFP/Getty Images)

And yet she once did — batting Witt down to second place in a 1986 World Figure Skating Championships — it mostly seemed to be a melancholic pursuit. She fretted about a Olympics. “I unequivocally wish it over with,” Thomas told Rolling Stone repository before a 1988 Winter Games. “Last week,” she added, “I guess we was going to chuck myself by a potion windows during a rink.”

Then came a moment. Thomas had skated with pointing and certainty in a initial Olympic eventuality and would take bullion if she stranded a longer performance.

She and her manager had designed dual triple-revolution jumps in discerning period during a segment’s commencement — something no other tip womanlike skater had finished — worrying ballet instructor George de la Peña, who had helped Thomas with her routine. “Why not give her some space before a large unsure stuff?” he removed saying. But Thomas guess she could land it.

The first, she did. The second, she flubbed.

Thomas knew it was over seconds into a routine. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed to her manager after she finished, eventually holding a bronze medal. She looked disappointed. But her countenance conveyed something else: relief.

“Well,” she told her coach. “Back to school.”

* * *

Thomas talks a lot about what she calls a “Olympian mentality.” It’s a support of mind among chosen athletes that they can will themselves to excellence. Self-doubt and disadvantage are banished. Confidence is everything. Triumph is within reach.

William T. Long, once an educational during a Los Angeles university where Thomas did her residency, saw this psychology during work. Everyone knew Thomas could do a procedures. Patients desired her. But her grades weren’t outstanding. There was regard that she wouldn’t pass a boards. “And she did it,” he said, “against a critics and opposite many odds.”


Silver-medalist Elizabeth Manley of Canada, left, and gold-medalist Katarina Witt of East Germany join bronze-medalist Debi Thomas on a mount in 1988 during a Winter Olympics in Calgary. (AP)

Debi Thomas cries on a shoulder of her coach, Alex McGowan, in 1988 after her opening in a giveaway skating foe during a Calgary Winter Games. (Mark Cardwell/AFP/Getty Images)

But that feat also tricked what would turn her signature weakness. Long never saw her seem to be uncertain and came to commend her certainty as a “two-edged sword.” It gathering her to take larger risks than others would. It finished her formidable to coach. Some disliked her given of it.

“She wanted and approaching to be treated like a star,” pronounced Lawrence Dorr, who offering her a prestigious orthopedic brotherhood during a Dorr Arthritis Institute in Los Angeles, yet fast satisfied he couldn’t work with her. “But in orthopedics, she knew she wasn’t a star,” Dorr said. He added: “She would disagree back. It was roughly like she was contrarian, like she was perplexing to disagree with all we do.”

Difficulties with other medical professionals would come to conclude Thomas’s career as she left one establishment after another after brief durations of time. Her initial stop was in Champaign, Ill. Then another in Terre Haute, Ind. “I’ve never lasted anywhere some-more than a year,” she said. What she noticed as joining to perfection, others viewed as recalcitrance. “Olympian genius is severe given we usually get undone with how everybody does everything,” Thomas explained in a YouTube video. “Everything needs to be finished with excellence. I’m a fixer.”

If she could be her possess boss, she guess things would improve. So in 2010, she left her father and 13-year-old son — whose propagandize year she pronounced she didn’t wish to interrupt — and altered to Richlands, where she non-stop a private orthopedic use during a Clinch Valley Medical Center. But Thomas — a dilettante in a frugally populated area, with no business knowledge — was shortly descending behind on bills, blazing by assets and contrary with other doctors.

Around this time, she treated a boy’s damaged wrist, and his father asked her out. The desirable male lived in a gray trailer by a river. She and Looney began an affectionate, yet combustible, relationship. She satisfied that Looney, who had spent years in a spark mines, had an obsession to medication narcotics. And yet she was dating him, according to Virginia Board of Medicine annals she pronounced she prescribed him drugs to “wean him off a narcotics.”

As Thomas’s troubles mounted, Long pronounced he viewed lengthy, 10-page e-mails from his former student. They were “rambling,” he said, laced with guess that a medical complement was conspiring opposite her. Whatever was discouraging Thomas, he said, was “progressive” and worse each time he listened from her.

On Apr 22, 2012, Thomas and Looney had a feud during a trailer, says a psychological analysis Thomas common with The Washington Post. Thomas got reason of his gun. “She thought, ‘If we act crazier than him, he will straighten up,’ ” a news says. “She afterwards went outward and shot a gun into a belligerent to shock him,” it also states.

Later that day, according to Virginia Department of Health Professionals records, she approached a military officer and told him she had a gun and wanted to harm herself. He incarcerated her and, on a proxy apprehension order, brought her to a sanatorium for treatment. Medical house annals uncover she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Clinch Valley officials told Thomas to enter a distressed-physician program. But she couldn’t means it. And a year later, Thomas’s staff membership and clinical privileges were revoked. Medical house annals contend there were “concerns of an ongoing settlement of disciplinary and function issues and bad judgement.”

Unable to use — or means $800 in monthly lease — Thomas altered into Looney’s trailer, announced failure and let her medical permit expire. Last July, a Virginia Board of Medicine systematic a conference to examine either she competence have damaged any medical laws when she prescribed narcotics to Looney and declined assistance for a diagnosed mental illness.

In September, Thomas contested a bipolar diagnosis during a house hearing, annals show. The diagnosis was finished too quickly, she said, proffering a apart analysis conducted by a clergyman whom she had paid. The doctor, who diagnosed Thomas with basin in “complete remission,” pronounced in a analysis that a Olympian’s haphazard function was not a sign of bipolar disorder, yet “naivete, overconfidence, and her expectancy that if she works tough enough, she can overcome any obstacle. . . . Her knowledge as a world-class figure skater reinforced this expectancy and confidence.”

In October, a board, citing her lapsed license, took no action.


Debi Thomas looks out her front door, where she can see and hear a spark trains that pass by her mobile home. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

* * *

It’s 9 a.m. inside a trailer, yet Looney has been adult for hours, worrying. The usually income they have entrance in is from some Social Security checks on comment of a genocide of his children’s mother. He looks around a mobile home. He says he wants to get out of here, yet doesn’t know how.

Just then, Thomas arrives from a bedroom and nestles subsequent to him on a couch. He hands her a crater of coffee. She has usually finished articulate to a impending Karatbars recruit. “I usually had a unequivocally engaging review with a lady,” she says. “This lady totally gets me.”

“She sounded to me like she was jacked up,” Looney says of a woman, whom he had overheard vocalization with Thomas.

The span so frequency agrees that spending time with them can feel like sitting in on a couples’ therapy session. He wanted to get a office in a mines; she pronounced he shouldn’t. She wanted him to do a “Fix My Life” show; he guess he would be broke on inhabitant television. He hates their mobile home; she loves it, expressing contempt for “superficial” things.

In fact, Thomas says she loves roughly all about their life in Richlands. And there’s reason to trust her. “I didn’t know we even had this beauty in this country,” she said. “No one ever treated me badly” in Richlands, she added. “And we was like, ‘I like it here.’ ”

These days, she doesn’t have to shoulder a vigour of being a initial black anything. She doesn’t have to worry about medical exams, either a studious will redeem or if her use will attain — given it already failed. And she and Looney, who has been purify given 2012, contend they’ve calmed their attribute with a 12-step liberation program.

“I approaching to be one of a leaders in joint-replacement therapy,” pronounced Thomas, now writing a book about her life. “That was what my picture was. Then we had an knowledge that totally altered my mind.”

On a new afternoon, a light sleet sprinkled a trailer with white. Looney and his dual boys barreled outward to play. Thomas pulled on her red, poofy coat. She walked off by herself, toward a river. She slanted her conduct behind and, with arms hold out wide, was still as a sleet pattered on her face.

Looney asked what she was doing. She pronounced she was recreating a iconic stage from “The Shawshank Redemption,” when impression Andy Dufresne transient jail following decades of fake seizure and insincere a same viewpoint in a rain.

“I’m free,” Thomas called out to him. “Don’t we get it?”

Michael S. Williamson contributed to this report.

Article source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/the-mystery-of-why-the-best-african-american-figure-skater-in-history-went-bankrupt-and-lives-in-a-trailer/2016/02/25/a191972c-ce99-11e5-abc9-ea152f0b9561_story.html

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