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?"