Kurt Thomas is a former Olympic gymnast known for being the first American male gymnast to win a world championship gold medal, according to Yahoo Sports. He went on to become a sought-after star once he retired from the sport.
Kurt became a commentator, acted in a film and opened his own gymnastics school, according to Screencrush. Thomas suffered a stroke in late May and died June 5, the website reported.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Thomas Overcame A Difficult Childhood
Kurt Thomas was born in Miami, Florida, on March 29, 1956, the International Gymnast Media reported. Thomas’ father was killed in an auto accident when Thomas was seven years old, leaving his mother to raise four children on her own, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. Thomas’ mother struggled financially in Miami, Florida and she also worried about Thomas.
Thomas, the Daily News reported, was “sickly,” and suffering from two heart murmurs when he was nine years old. When he was 13, he was only 4-feet and 9-inches tall and he weighed on 77 pounds. According to teh paper, “His mother was convinced (Thomas) was a midget.” At a genetic specialist, the doctor told him that he wasn’t a midget, but that he’d never “be a middle linebacker.”
Thomas tried several different sports, but his size held him back. When he walked into a gymnastics practice and felt like he fit in, size-wise, he signed up. National stardom, the Daily News said, was only three years away.
2. Thomas’ Rise To Stardom Peaked In The Late 1970s
Thomas was successful in the Junior Olympic program and he received a scholarship at Indiana State University, where he earned 13 All-American honors, International Gymnast Media reported. Thomas competed in the 1975 Pan American Games as a member of the U.S. team and he went on to compete in the 1976 Olympics.
Thomas really shined at the 1978 and 1979 world championships, International Gymnast Media reported. At the 1978 world championships in Strasbourg, France, Thomas became the first American to win a world championship gold medal with his floor exercise routine. In all, he won a total of eight world medals, three of which were gold at both the 1978 and 1979 world championships. In 1979, he won the James E. Sullivan Award.
During the 1980 Olympic boycott, Thomas took a break from amateur sports and became a professional, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. During that time, he wrote his book and became an assistant gym coach at Arizona State University. Thomas seemed to enjoy the break from Olympic training and told the Chicago Tribune, “‘I’m running around like crazy, and it just started,’ he says with a small grin.”
He attempted to come back to the Olympics in 1992 and qualified for the trials at the age of 36, yet did not make the team, International Gymnast Media reported and that same year, he was eventually inducted into the Indian State University Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2003, he was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
3. Thomas Has Multiple Gymnastics Moves Named After Him
Thomas was well-known for bringing a certain “flair” to his routines and especially his pommel horse and floor exercise routines. That led to the “Thomas flair” being adopted as a technique on the pommel horse, Vault reported. The flair involved, “in the midst of what looks like a typical routine, Thomas suddenly flies into a series of whirling midair leg scissors, as if blown around the horse by a giant fan.”
The “Thomas salto” was also named after Thomas. It was a move that involved multiple somersaults and at the end of the sequence, a half-somersault and roll-out. This move was banned for women after several injured themselves attempting the move, including Elene Mukhina who under-rotated, landed on her chin and snapped her spine, leaving her a quadriplegic. It was also banned for both men and women in 2017.
Thomas also pioneered several other gymnastics moves, such as the Thomas tuck and pike and Thomas stretched moves of floor exercise.
These moves are considered legacies of Thomas’ dramatic and innovative style of gymnastics.
4. Thomas Had A Full Life After Gymnastics
Later on in life, Thomas retained his stardom status, becoming a commentator on ABC and he also wrote an autobiography, “Kurt Thomas: On Gymnastics.” the Philadelphia Daily News reported. He was also an incredibly sought-after sports figure, the paper reported:
Kurt Thomas is a hot property, the world’s sexiest one-man conglomerate. Ladies toss him roses from the front-row seats, they rush through security guards to kiss him.
Thomas would also go on to star in the movie “Gymkata,” which has become somewhat of a cult classic. The 90-minute action thriller was released in 1985. It movie followed an American gymnast played by Thomas who travels to the fictional foreign country of Parmistan to compete in a game requiring gymnastic and fighting skills; for his role in the movie, Thomas won the Razzie Award for the worst new star.
Yahoo Sports noted that Thomas was one of the first male gymnasts to become very popular:
Thomas, who appeared regularly on late-night talk shows in the 1970s, was the first breakthrough American male star in a sport where the spotlight gravitates heavily toward women.
Thomas and his wife, Rebecca Jones — also someone who choreographed gymnastics routine — opened their own gymnastics studio called the Kurt Thomas Gymnastics in Frisco, Texas, the International Gymnast Media reported.
5. Thomas Died Weeks After Suffering A Serious Stroke
Thomas’ family said that Thomas had a stroke May 24 after the basilar artery in his brain stem tore, the Chicago Tribune reported. He died June 5 at the age of 64.
“Yesterday I lost my universe, my best friend and my soul mate of twenty-four years. Kurt lived his life to the extreme, and I will be forever honored to be his wife,” his wife told the International Gymnast Media.
Thomas was survived by Kurt Travis, a child from his first marriage, as well as his wife and their two children, Kassidy and Hunter Thomas.
Many gymnastics colleagues, rivals and legends have also honored Thomas and mourned his passing on social media.
Thomas’ Olympic teammate Bart Conner told the International Gymnast Media that he was devastated:
Kurt was a fierce rival, who went on to become a cherished friend. My heart is breaking for his wife Beckie, his children, Hunter, Kassidy and Kurt as well as the entire gymnastics community, who lost a true pioneer today.