Sunday, June 17, 2018
Sports

Debi Thomas' fall from grace

RICHLANDS, Va.

Debi Thomas, the best African-American figure skater in history, couldn't find her figure skates. She looked around the darkened trailer, perched along a river in a town so broke even the bars have closed, and sighed. The mobile home where she lives with her fiance and his two young boys was cluttered with dishes, stacks of documents, a Christmas tree still standing weeks past the holiday.

"They're around here somewhere," she murmured three times. "I know I have a pair," she continued, before trailing off.

"Because — what did I skate in? — something. They're really tight, though, because your feet grow after you don't wear them for a long time." Her medals — from the World Figure Skating Championships, from the Olympics — were equally elusive: "They're in some bag somewhere."

Uncertainty is not a feeling Debi Thomas has often experienced in her 48 years. She was once so confident that she simultaneously studied at Stanford University and trained for the Olympics, against the advice of her coach. She was once so lauded for her lithe beauty on the ice that Time magazine put her on its cover and ABC's Wide World of Sports named her athlete of the year in 1986. She wasn't just the nation's best figure skater. She was smart — able to win a competition, stay up all night cramming, then ace a test the next morning.

She wanted it all. And for a time, she had it. After Stanford came medical school at Northwestern, then marriage to a handsome lawyer who gave her a son — who in turn became one of the country's best high school football players. Higher and higher she went.

Now, she's here. Thomas, a former orthopedic surgeon who doesn't have health insurance, declared bankruptcy in 2014 and hasn't brought in a steady paycheck in years. She's twice divorced, and her medical license, which she was in danger of losing anyhow, expired around the time she went broke. She hasn't seen her family in years. She instead inveighs against shadowy authorities in the nomenclature of conspiracy theorists — "the powers that be"; "corporate media"; "brainwashing" — and composes opinion pieces for the local newspaper that carry headlines such as "Pain, No Gain" and "Driven to Insanity."

There's a conventional narrative of how Thomas went from where she was to where she is — that of a talented figure undone by internal struggles and left penniless. That was how reality TV told it, when the Oprah Winfrey Network's Fix My Life and Inside Edition did pieces on her.

"She's got all these degrees," fiance Jamie Looney said as he watched television with Thomas inside the trailer. "She's a doctor. She's a surgeon. And she's here. I've got one year of community college. I know why I'm here. I look at her, wondering, 'Why are you not working somewhere else?' "

Such comments upset Thomas. "People are all like, 'Get a job,' " she said. "And I'm like, 'You people are fools.' I'm trying to change the world."

•••

Excelling always has been very important in Thomas' family. Her grandfather Daniel Skelton received a doctorate in veterinary medicine at Cornell University in 1939, the only African-American in his class. Her mom, who split from Thomas' dad when Thomas was 9, was a computer engineer when the field had few women and fewer blacks. Her brother, Richard Taylor, earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley, then a master's in business at Stanford.

"I guess I'm somewhat underachieving," Taylor said.

Anyone would be when compared with Debi Thomas.

When a coach realized he had a prodigy on his hands in Thomas, when she got deeper into the byzantine and fiercely political world of figure skating, there came a choice: skating or school.

"Eighth grade came along and she comes in second in the nation and her coach wanted her to quit school," her mother, Janice Thomas, said. Instead, she enrolled in high school near an ice rink in Redwood City, Calif., and for four years her mom drove 150 miles per day — school, then practice, then home. When she dispatched her college application to Stanford, the word she used to describe herself: "invincible."

"Some people are told, 'You can't do that,' and it crushes them," her mother said. "Other people say, 'I'll show you.' "

Thomas ultimately got three nose jobs, brought in a ballet instructor to feminize her aesthetic and, between the ages of 18 and 21, was considered the only one capable of taking down the worldwide juggernaut of women's figure skating, East Germany's Katarina Witt.

"She was the only one who could really beat me," recalls Witt, a two-time Winter Olympics gold medalist.

And though she once did — batting Witt down to second place in the 1986 World Championships — it often appeared to be a joyless pursuit. She fretted about the Olympics. "I really want it over with," Thomas told Rolling Stone magazine before the 1988 Winter Games. "Last week," she added, "I thought I was going to throw myself through the glass windows at the rink."

Then came the moment. Thomas had skated with precision and confidence in the first Olympic event and would take gold if she stuck the longer performance.

She and her coach had planned two triple-revolution jumps in quick succession at the segment's beginning — something no other top female skater had done — worrying ballet instructor George de la Peña, who had helped Thomas with her routine. "Why not give her some space before the big risky stuff?" he recalled saying. But Thomas thought she could land it.

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

Thomas knew it was over seconds into the routine. "I'm sorry," she mouthed to her coach after she finished, eventually taking the bronze medal. She looked disappointed. But her expression conveyed something else: relief.

"Well," she told her coach, "back to school."

•••

Thomas talks a lot about what she calls the "Olympian mentality." It's a frame of mind among elite athletes that they can will themselves to excellence. Self-doubt and vulnerability are banished. Confidence is everything. Triumph is within reach.

"She wanted and expected to be treated like a star," said Lawrence Dorr, who offered Thomas a prestigious orthopedic fellowship at the Dorr Arthritis Institute in Los Angeles but quickly realized he couldn't work with her. "But in orthopedics, she knew she wasn't a star," Dorr said. He added: "She would argue back. It was almost like she was contrarian, like she was trying to argue with everything I do."

Difficulties with other medical professionals would come to define Thomas' career as she left one institution after another after short periods of time.

If she could be her own boss, she thought things would improve. So in 2010, she left her husband and 13-year-old son — whose school year she said she didn't want to disrupt — and moved to Richlands, where she opened a private orthopedic practice at the Clinch Valley Medical Center. But Thomas — a specialist in a sparsely populated area, with no business experience — fell behind on bills, burning through savings and clashed with other doctors.

Around this time, she treated a boy's broken wrist, and his dad asked her out. The charming man lived in a gray trailer by the river. She and Looney began an affectionate but combustible relationship. She realized that Looney, who had spent years in the coal mines, had an addiction to prescription narcotics. And though she was dating him, according to Virginia Board of Medicine records, she said she prescribed him drugs to "wean him off the narcotics."

On April 22, 2012, Thomas and Looney had a disagreement at the trailer, says a psychological evaluation Thomas shared with the Washington Post. Thomas got hold of his gun. "She thought, 'If I act crazier than him, he will straighten up,' " the report says. "She then went outside and shot the gun into the ground to scare him," it also states.

Later that day, according to Virginia Department of Health Professionals records, she approached a police officer and told him she had a gun and wanted to hurt herself. He detained her and, on a temporary detention order, brought her to a hospital for treatment. Medical board records show she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Clinch Valley officials told Thomas to enter a distressed-physician program. But she couldn't afford it. And a year later, Thomas' staff membership and clinical privileges were revoked. Medical board records say there were "concerns of an ongoing pattern of disciplinary and behavior issues and poor judgment."

Unable to practice — or afford $800 in monthly rent — Thomas moved into Looney's trailer, declared bankruptcy and let her medical license expire. Last July, the Virginia Board of Medicine ordered a hearing to investigate whether she might have broken any medical laws when she prescribed narcotics to Looney and declined help for a diagnosed mental illness.

In September, Thomas contested the bipolar diagnosis at a board hearing, records show.

In October, the board, citing her expired license, took no action.

•••

It's 9 a.m. inside the trailer, but Looney has been up for hours, worrying. The only money they have coming in is from some Social Security checks on account of the death of his children's mother. He looks around the mobile home. He says he wants to get out of here, but he doesn't know how.

He hates their mobile home; she loves it, expressing disdain for "superficial" things.

     
     
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