Kurt Thomas (gymnast)

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Kurt Thomas
Full nameKurt Bilteaux Thomas
Born(1956-03-29)March 29, 1956
Miami, Florida, U.S.
DiedJune 5, 2020(2020-06-05) (aged 64)
Texas, U.S.
DisciplineMen's artistic gymnastics

Kurt Bilteaux Thomas (March 29, 1956 – June 5, 2020) was an American Olympic gymnast. He was the first American male gymnast to win a gold medal at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships (World Championships), doing so in 1978.[1] One year later, he set the record for most medals won at a single worlds by an American gymnast with six, a feat matched only by Simone Biles in 2018. Despite this success, his only Olympic appearance came in 1976.[1] He was unable to compete at the 1980 Summer Olympics, where he was considered to be the favorite to win gold, due to his nation's boycott of those Games. He was subsequently barred from competing at the Olympics four years later because he had turned professional.

Early life[edit]

Thomas was born in Miami, Florida on March 29, 1956. His father worked as the manager of a meat company, and died when Thomas was seven. His mother, Ellie, was a secretary and looked after him and his siblings on her own. Although he initially wanted to become a professional basketball or football player, his interest in gymnastics was piqued at age 14 after watching the team from Miami-Dade Junior College practice. He was awarded a scholarship to study at Indiana State University (ISU).[2] He became a five-time NCAA champion at ISU,[3] winning the parallel bars and all-around in 1977 and parallel bars, horizontal bar and the all-around in 1979. Thomas helped lead the ISU men's gymnastics team to the 1977 National Championship.[2]


Thomas earned All-America honors 13 times in his career. He was the James E. Sullivan award winner in 1979, as well as the 1979 Nissen Award (the "Heisman" of men's gymnastics) awardee.[4][5]

Thomas first competed as a member of the U. S. Olympic team at the 1976 Summer Olympics.[1] Two years later, he became the first American male gymnast to win a gold medal in floor exercise, accomplishing the feat in the 1978 World Championships.[6] He subsequently became the first gymnast to receive the James E. Sullivan Award for the best amateur athlete in the United States. Thomas earned six medals at the 1979 World Championships, including gold on the horizontal bar and floor exercise, and silver in the all-around, parallel bars, and pommel horse, establishing a new American record for most medals won at a single worlds.[7] The feat would later be tied by Simone Biles in 2018.[3][8] He was seen as a favorite to win a gold medal at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow; however, the games were boycotted by the United States government in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.[2][1]

Since the Olympics' strict amateurism rules at the time would have forced him to forgo many lucrative financial opportunities, Thomas elected not to attempt to compete in the 1984 Summer Olympics.[8] With professionals allowed to compete by the time of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Thomas attempted a comeback.[2] Despite his advanced age for a gymnast, he was able to make it to the 1992 United States Men's Gymnastics Olympic Trials, but his performance there fell short of what was needed to make the team.[6]

Signature moves[edit]

Three gymnastic moves were named for him, the Thomas flair, a pommel horse move, and the Thomas salto, his signature skill on floor exercise, a tucked 1.5 backward salto with 1.5 twist into a roll out (a difficult and dangerous skill even by today's standards), and the Thomas on High Bar.[1][9] The Thomas flair on pommel horse, and then also performed on floor, was developed over years by several pommel horse specialists.[10] However, in gymnastics, new moves are named in the gymnastics rule book after the gymnast who is the first to perform the move in international competition.[11]

Film and television work[edit]

Thomas featured in the 1985 film Gymkata, playing the role of an American gymnast who travels to the fictional country of Parmistan in order to compete in a deadly competition called The Game.[3][7] The film earned Thomas a Razzie Award nomination for Worst New Star and was poorly received by critics, but has developed somewhat of a cult following due to its unintentional comedy.[12] Thomas also starred in the syndicated TV series True Confessions and worked as a commentator for ABC Sports[13] and ESPN.[7]

Personal life[edit]

In 1996, Thomas married Rebecca Jones, a dancer who also choreographs gymnastic routines.[14] Together, they had two children: Hunter and Kassidy. Thomas also had a son from a previous marriage, Kurt Travis; Travis has been in four bands.[2][15] Thomas and his wife ran the Kurt Thomas Gymnastics Training Center in Frisco, Texas. Since 2003 their gym has hosted the annual Kurt Thomas International Invitational gymnastics meet, a competition endorsed by the USA Gymnastics.[14]

Thomas was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2003.[16] He was also inducted into three other domestic halls of fame – USA Gymnastics in 1990, the Indiana State University Athletic in 1999, and the Missouri Valley Conference in 2010.[8]

Thomas died on June 5, 2020, at the age of 64. He suffered a stroke on May 24, two weeks before his death, brought about by a tear of the basilar artery in the brain stem.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Kurt Thomas, first U.S. man to win a world gymnastics title, dies at 64". ESPN. ESPN News Services. 6 June 2020. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e Goldstein, Richard (June 7, 2020). "Kurt Thomas, Trailblazing Champion Gymnast, Dies at 64". The New York Times. Retrieved June 7, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Haring, Bruce (June 7, 2020). "Kurt Thomas Dies: First American To Win Gymnastics Gold And Actor Was 64". Deadline. Retrieved June 7, 2020.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 23, 2012. Retrieved March 19, 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-08-22. Retrieved 2016-07-11.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ a b c "Kurt Thomas, first US man to win world gym title, dies at 64". Associated Press. June 7, 2020. Retrieved June 7, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c "Kurt Thomas (2011) – Hall of Fame". Missouri Valley Conference. Archived from the original on June 8, 2020. Retrieved June 8, 2020.
  8. ^ a b c Woods, David (June 7, 2020). "Indiana State's Kurt Thomas, gymnast denied 1980 glory, dies". The Indianapolis Star. Retrieved June 7, 2020.
  9. ^ Skills Named for U.S. Gymnasts // USA Gymnastics
  10. ^ "Who Really Invented the Flair" (PDF). International Gymnast Magazine. October 1980.
  11. ^ McCarriston, Shanna (October 8, 2019). "Simone Biles has two new signature moves that will be named after her following world championships performance". CBS Sports. Retrieved June 7, 2020.
  12. ^ Rabin, Nathan (April 9, 2012). "Gymkata proves that tiny gymnasts make tough heroes". A.V. Club. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  13. ^ "Gymn Forum: Kurt Thomas Biography". www.gymn-forum.net.
  14. ^ a b "Former ISU, Olympic athlete Kurt Thomas named to MVC Hall of Fame". Indiana State University. February 23, 2011. Archived from the original on June 8, 2020. Retrieved June 7, 2020.
  15. ^ "Lead Singer Syndrome". Retrieved September 28, 2019.
  16. ^ "KURT THOMAS". International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Retrieved June 5, 2009.

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