Kurt Thomas, First US men’s gymnastics to win world champion, died at 64
Kurt Thomas, an energizing athlete whose scissor-kicking moves sent groups into a furor and helped him become the principal American man to win a big showdown, just to see his mission for Olympic gold frustrated by the U.S. blacklist of the 1980 Games in Moscow, kicked the bucket June 5. He was 64.
His demise was affirmed by USA Gymnastics and first revealed by International Gymnast Media, which said he had a stroke on May 24. Extra subtleties were not promptly accessible.
At the point when Mr. Thomas won his first big showdown in 1978, he was apparently the best male athlete the United States had at this point created. Known for his “Thomas flair,” a broadly imitated arrangement of midair scissor kicks on the handle horse, he burst onto the American games scene as a tumbler of extraordinary inventiveness and phenomenal distinction.
Met by Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, he turned into the main tumbler to win the James E. Sullivan Award as the country’s top novice competitor of 1979. In transit to triumph at the American Cup vaulting rivalry that equivalent year, he drew such deafening praise at Madison Square Garden that a correspondent compared him to a youthful Frank Sinatra performing at the Paramount Theater.
“He is redefining the sport of men’s gymnastics, putting it on a par with the women’s version as a crowd-pleasing act,” composed New York Times writer Grace Lichtenstein. “Like John Curry, the ice skater,” she added in a 1979 profile, “he is taking a sport and grafting on new elements to make it an art. He is men’s gymnastics’ Baryshnikov and its Balanchine.”
Mr. Thomas was reckless and arrogant — “the John McEnroe of gymnastics,” U.S. Aerobatic boss Mike Jacki once stated, alluding to the fierce tennis star — and stood only 5-foot-5, with long arms and short legs. He was so modest as a youngster that his mom took him to a geneticist when he was 9, expecting that he could never develop. “He was so tiny that if he had lost five pounds I think he would have died,” she told Sports Illustrated in 1978. Mr. Thomas rounded out only enough to turn into a power on the acrobatic floor, taking up the game as a young person in Miami.
At Indiana State University in Terre Haute, he won five individual NCAA titles and drove the Sycamores to the 1977 national title, while positioning behind future ball Hall of Famer Larry Bird as the school’s second-greatest VIP. “Pure Gold in the Corn Belt,” Time magazine announced in a double profile of the competitors.
In 1978, Mr. Thomas made a trip to Strasbourg, France, for the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, where he helped break an almost five-decade dry season for American gymnasts. Not since the 1932 Olympics had an American succeeded at a significant universal rivalry, and out of nowhere the nation had two gold medalists, with Mr. Thomas winning for his floor exercise and Marcia Frederick winning on the lopsided bars.
Mr. Thomas effectively guarded his floor title at the following year’s big showdowns in Fort Worth, Tex. He brought home six decorations — including two golds, for the floor exercise and even bar — and put second in the inside and out rivalry, behind just Soviet tumbler Alexander Dityatin.
“It’s time for the world to look out for American gymnasts. We’ve arrived,” Mr. Thomas told journalists, looking forward to the 1980 Moscow Games. He had contended at the Montreal Olympics four years sooner yet completed 21st in the inside and out, while nursing a finger injury and as yet sharpening his strategy.
In the number one spot up to Moscow, he felt great.“In my mind and my heart,” Mr. Thomas later revealed to Florida’s Sun-Sentinel paper, “I knew I was the best at that time.”
Be that as it may, when President Jimmy Carter declared that the United States would blacklist the Games because of the Soviet intrusion of Afghanistan, Mr. Thomas chose to turn expert. With his Olympic qualification not, at this point an issue, he surrendered his novice status to exploit rewarding underwriting offers, visit the nation with a tumbling gathering and perform at Sea World and state fairs.
Mr. Thomas additionally composed a life account, trained tumbling, propelled a line of activewear and started a fleeting acting profession, featuring in the activity film “Gymkata” (1985), coordinated by “Enter the Dragon” producer Robert Clouse, as a tumbler who enters a lethal rivalry and utilizations his aerobatic capacities to fend off a group in the “Village of the Crazies.”
In the wake of filling in as a correspondent during the 1984 Olympics, Mr. Thomas arranged a startling rebound endeavor for the 1992 Games. He arrived at the U.S. Olympic preliminaries at age 36, over 10 years more seasoned than the vast majority of his rivals, however neglected to make the group.
By at that point, some reports had erroneously alluded to him as a “former Olympic gold medal gymnast.” Others noticed that when he was 31, he was twice separated and bankrupt, running into issues with his going through and with “high-risk investments” proposed by one of his chiefs.
Be that as it may, Mr. Thomas demanded he was not severe. “Look at it this way,” he told the Sun-Sentinel in 1989. “I could have gone to the Olympics and placed 50th. What if I had gone over there and lost? I think things would have been real bad.”
Regardless of whether he had been offered plugs for Campbell’s soup and Kentucky Fried Chicken, as he had without setting off to the Games, “I still would have lost the money,” he continued. “I still would have been stupid. I’d still have to grow up.”
The manner in which things worked out, he included with some shock, “I’m a hero without proving it, a gold medalist without ever doing it.”
Kurt Bilteaux Thomas was conceived in Miami on March 29, 1956. His dad was a meat-organization director and previous grappler who kicked the bucket in an auto crash when Kurt was 7, leaving his mom, a secretary, with four youngsters to raise.
At 14, he saw a lesser school tumbling group practice and got hypnotized by their level bar schedules. He was 4-foot-9 and 77 pounds when he started contending as a secondary school rookie, and by his senior year he was handling a grant offer from Indiana State aerobatic mentor Roger Counsil, who later drove the men’s national group.
“I had never had anybody tell me I was good at anything before,” Mr. Thomas told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1981. “Tumbling caused me to feel like someone.”
While his acrobatic vocation started to take off, Mr. Thomas — who got a four year college education in 1979 — wedded individual Indiana State understudy Beth Osting and moved into a 8-foot-wide trailer outside Terre Haute, stretching out his preparation routine to six hours every day, six days per week. Their marriage later finished in separate, as did a resulting union with acrobat Leanne Hartsgrove.
In 1996 he wedded Beckie Jones, an artist and choreographer with whom he opened Kurt Thomas Gymnastics in Frisco, Tex. Complete data on survivors was not quickly accessible.
Mr. Thomas was drafted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1990 and the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2003.
“To really hit your routine the best you can possibly hit it, that’s just a super feeling,” he told the Times during his title run in 1979.
He had a comparative inclination at the big showdowns soon thereafter, when the national hymn was played and the American banner brought up in acknowledgment of the gold awards won by Mr. Thomas and individual American Bart Conner, who won the gold for equal bars.
“Our flag has been down at the bottom of the box so long,” Mr. Thomas said, “that it was great to see it flying at the top today.”