When Eleanor Thomas' youngest son Kurt was nine years old, she took him to see a genetic specialist at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital because, as she recalls, "The poor little thing was just bones; I mean, he was so tiny that if he had lost five pounds I think he would have died. I was terrified he was going to be a midget."
X rays of Kurt's hands confirmed that his growth was somewhat retarded, and further examination revealed not one but two heart murmurs. The doctors adopted a wait-and-see attitude, telling Mrs. Thomas they would keep a close watch on him for the next five years to see how he developed.
Not very much, as it turned out. The heart murmurs did go away, but at the age of 13 Kurt was still small enough (4'9", 77 pounds) to succeed in talking his way onto a Tiny Tot football team for 10-year-olds.
He was a tough little kid nonetheless, and a good athlete for his size. When he was 14 and returned to Jackson for his final checkup, a consulting pediatrician, Dr. William Cleveland, looked him over and told his mother that he would probably turn out just fine. Not big, she was to understand, since she was scarcely five feet tall and her late husband had been only 5'6". But little Kurt could expect to lead a normal life.
It took eight years for Kurt to allay his mother's fears. But when 22-year-old Kurt Thomas, now 5'5" and a rock-hard 127 pounds, won his third consecutive U.S. Gymnastics Federation title in Los Angeles earlier this month, topping off a frantic week of nonstop interviews, agents' phone calls and a movie offer with a 9.9 on the high bar, he proved he was going to be big after all. In the Hollywood sense. Also, that the next few years of his life were going to be anything but normal.
Thomas' USGF all-round title reaffirmed his position as the best gymnast in the country—indeed, probably the finest the U.S. has ever had. While that distinction hasn't meant much to the rest of the world in the past (the U.S. has-not won an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics since 1932), it is about to mean a good deal. Thomas' dramatic 9.9 in Los Angeles was the third of his career, and many of the world's leading gymnasts believe he will be a force to reckon with at the Moscow Games in 1980. Moreover, Thomas will not be a one-man team. He needed his near perfect high-bar routine, concluded by a stunning double back somersault with a full twist, as a rejoinder to Oklahoma's NCAA champion Bart Conner, who, moments before, had stolen some of Thomas' thunder with a brilliantly conceived 9.85 set on the parallel bars.
Besides Conner, who led the Sooners to the NCAA team title while Thomas, now a senior at Indiana State, was competing overseas, three other highly accomplished gymnasts competed in Los Angeles. They were Jim Hartung, a cocky freshman-to-be at Nebraska, whose even cockier coach roamed the UCLA campus scratching out Thomas' name on promotional posters and scribbling in Hartung's; Mike Wilson, a teammate of Conner's at Oklahoma; and Phil Cahoy, a high school teammate of Hartung's in Omaha.
This is the best young crop of gymnasts the U.S. has ever produced. If they reach their goal, a bronze medal in the team competition in Moscow, their success story will have begun with the splash Thomas has made in international meets in the past year. His red-shirt season may have cost Indiana State the NCAA title, but his performances in places like Barcelona, Tokyo and London have given American gymnasts sorely needed stature in the minds of foreign judges. And for the young gymnasts back home, there was now an American to pattern themselves after.
Thomas has posed for pictures with Nadia Comaneci—when they took their victory bows at the 1977 Romanian Invitational in Bacau. In Barcelona, crowds gasped at his "Thomas Flair," a pommel horse maneuver that was subsequently named for him: 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. Spanish newspaper headlines proclaimed his style THE NEW GYMNASTICS, and the stories said that here at last was an innovator from America, a gymnast who wasn't following in the footsteps of either the Japanese or the Soviets.
At the American Cup in New York's Madison Square Garden last March, response to Thomas was overwhelming. Before a national TV audience and a two-day crowd of 22,000, Thomas shocked an 18-nation field by winning all six events with scores of 9.6 or higher. East German Olympian Roland Bruckner was second, Conner third, Russia's Sergei Khizhniakov fourth and Japan's two-time Olympic gold medalist Mitsuo Tsukahara a distant fifth. After the awards ceremony, where Thomas was mobbed by young girls, one of them was overheard asking another, "Do you think Kurt will sign my autograph book?"
"I don't know. He's awfully tired and would probably like to get going."
"How do you know so much? I saw him talking to you during the meet. Who are you, his mother or something?"
"No. I'm his wife."
Thomas' star quality was also quickly recognized by Paul Brandon, whose Hollywood clients include actor Bill Bixby and who was one of the first to contact Thomas when he arrived in Los Angeles to help promote the USGF meet.
"Kurt, I've seen what you can do in gymnastics and, believe me, you have all the tools to become great," said Brandon over the telephone. "I'm calling you now because I screwed up in not getting to Bruce Jenner early. I don't want to make the same mistake twice."
Back home in Terre Haute, Ind., with the last reminders of his bachelor days—a Datsun 240Z and a waterbed—recently sold so that he and his wife Beth could buy an $8,000 mobile home, newlywed Kurt Thomas doesn't live like a media star. And he seems unlikely to become overimpressed with his status, as long as Beth continues to point out that he is so small she can wear his shirts and jeans.
As to physique, it should be noted that the boom in U.S. gymnastics has led to a significant reduction in the body size of American gymnasts. The first six finishers at the USGFs all fit the "ideal" proportions of the Japanese, who are still the spiritual leaders of the men's sport, having been winners of every Olympic team championship since 1960.
Thomas also benefits from his extremely long arms and relatively short legs. On the horse, for example, this enables him to work higher than most gymnasts, with less worry about getting his legs tangled in the pommels as he swings through his routine. This added height—"amplitude," as the judges refer to it—is what makes his "Thomas Flair" so exciting. When gymnasts all over the world began trying to imitate it (with limited success thus far), Thomas updated the Flair with a tricky move to the other side of the horse, where he executes another Flair for the folks on the opposite side of the arena.
"Kurt has an actor's demeanor and a good stage feel for the sport," says Conner. "He can handle a greater degree of difficulty than the rest of us right now, and he really knows how to show off what he does best. He has an explosive style, and when he gets hot, as he did at the American Cup, look out."
Thomas racks up points for originality and virtuosity with the Flair, which he has now incorporated into his floor exercise, but he also scores high because of the crisp, nervy manner in which he attacks every trick in all of the categories. In the minds of the judges, he is not tied to any one aspect of gymnastics, as is Russia's world champion Nikolai Andrianov, whose superiority is in the strength moves.
Thomas isn't afraid of big tricks, like the triple flyaway he has been working on as a high bar dismount, and he will also put a little ballet into his floor exercise, carrying it off with the panache of a Korbut or Comaneci. He agrees with the popular notion that because girls mature faster than boys, they hit their gymnastics peak in their early teens, while men get better with age.
"Young girls like Korbut and Comaneci don't have the fear that young men have," he says. "I didn't have any fear either when I started out, and that was a definite asset. Once I got hurt I started really being afraid. I was practicing the floor exercise and I landed on my neck and fractured the seventh cervical vertebra. I was tired at the time and went over too early and landed on my head. But it was a minor break and I just needed a collar for a while.
"You know, people think the floor exercise is the safest thing we do, but it's not true. Out on the floor there is nothing to hold on to.
"Each event has its own dangers—I've heard it said that 300 pounds of pressure builds up on your hands as you go through a giant swing on the rings. These tricks don't just look scary, they are, when you're learning them. But you've got a training belt on that's hooked to the ceiling by two ropes and a system of pulleys—your coach or teammate can just give a yank on the rope and take all the velocity out of your landing. But the high bar is probably the most dangerous, because it's eight feet off the ground, and at the top of your dismount you're dropping to the mat from 12 or 14 feet up, at great speed.
"Take the triple flyaway I'm trying to perfect. You learn it in stages. If you've done two somersaults in practice, it's not too hard just to hold on a little longer and go for three. You have to try to feel three, however, and you've got to look for your landing. Not consciously, perhaps, but I am looking as I'm coming out of the third revolution. You can count one, two, three or, as I do, you can anticipate the landing according to your rotation speed. Over the years I've accumulated an air sense, or what you might call an air awareness, of where I am at a certain time in a certain trick. At my stage, I don't think any real flukes are going to happen. In competition you have to have the trick down or you don't use it. When I perform now I'm not really afraid because I know what I'm doing.
"I think most tricks should be done with swing rather than brute strength, because that way the move can be made to look effortless. There are moves, on the rings, for example, that require super strength, but making it look effortless—I think that's your ultimate goal in gymnastics."
Thomas had not arrived at this point when he finished 21st in the all-round in the 1976 Olympics. Admittedly at that time he was hindered as much by a lack of international experience as he was by stretched ligaments in one finger, an injury he incurred a few days before the competition.
"Kurt did well to finish where he did, considering his injury," says Penn State's Karl Schwenzfeier, who coached the U.S. team in Montreal. "He doesn't realize it yet, but since then he has become as good as anyone in the world. He's what I call a visual genius. You can show him a trick on videotape—something that might take another gymnast months to perfect—and Kurt has it locked in after 10 minutes. He has power, jumping ability and punch, and he always has something left. I think he's about to succeed in putting men's gymnastics on the map in this country."
Thomas also has fans overseas. "I give Kurt big chances in Moscow," says West Germany's Eberhard Gienger, a high-bar specialist who withstood a 9.9 by Thomas on the horse to win a narrow victory over him at a recent four-nation meet in Muenster.
Such praise is meaningful, but in the fiercely political and highly polarized world of international gymnastics, Gienger's sentiments would be looked upon with some skepticism by the Russians and Japanese. However, when word trickled back to this country that Andrianov, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, considers Thomas his No. 1 opponent in 1980, Kurt was knocked for a loop.
The idea that he might beat Andrianov, or at least the realization that he is alone at the top of U.S. gymnastics, seemed to have hit home as Thomas spent his next-to-last night in Los Angeles relaxing over a room-service meal at the Century Plaza Hotel.
"When I first started out in gymnastics, I was too weak to even do the rings," he said. "You should have seen me as a hall monitor at Miami Central High. They had to assign Elvis Peacock, a friend of mine, who went on to star in football at Oklahoma, to walk around with me and act as an enforcer. I didn't mind that so much, but I guess what they say about short people is true—you really do want to feel powerful at some point in your life. Gymnastics has taken me from Miami Central, where kids used to throw rocks at the windows during our meets, to winning the Romanian International. After all the work I've put in," he observed, "it would be nice to think that gymnastics might become a major sport in this country someday."
In truth, the crowds at the L.A. premiere of Jaws 2 were greater than those at Pauley Pavilion for any of the three nights of the USGFs. But there is considerable indication that Schwenzfeier's prediction may well come true. Dial Soap has just plunked down $1.25 million to cover the USGF's operating expenses for the next two years, and there were times when Namath and the AFL, Billie Jean and women's tennis and Dr. J and the ABA would have welcomed that kind of financial cushion. In a way, though, it boils down to something one of those Hollywood agents said when Thomas was out of earshot. "If he wins the gold medal in Moscow, Kurt Thomas will be the biggest thing to hit this country since Neil Armstrong."
That would be some accomplishment for Eleanor Thomas' little runt. Not to mention its being a giant step for U.S. gymnastics.