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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.