Kurt Thomas, U.S. gymnastics’ first world champion, dies at 64

Kurt Thomas
Getty Images
1 Comment

Kurt Thomas, the U.S.’ first world champion in gymnastics and an Olympian, died Friday at age 64 after previously suffering a stroke, his family said.

Thomas had a stroke May 24, caused by a tear of the basilar artery in the brain stem.

“I lost my universe, my best friend and my soulmate of 24 years,” his wife, Beckie, said, according to International Gymnast. “Kurt lived his life to the extreme, and I will be forever honored to be his wife.”

Thomas, after competing at the 1976 Olympics, became the first American to win a gold medal at the world championships, taking the floor exercise title in 1978. Thomas had flu-like symptoms and was so dizzy that he considered withdrawing.

Thomas said he was told there was a delay before the medal ceremony because organizers in Strasbourg, France, did not have the “Star-Spangled Banner” handy, given the U.S.’ lack of success in the sport.

“I was singing the national anthem, and at the end of it I closed my eyes, and I dropped my head and I remembered that moment, and I can still remember that moment to this day,” Thomas said in his 2003 International Gymnastics Hall of Fame induction speech. “Jim McKay said something at the end. He goes, ‘And now the question is asked, is all the work and all the deprivation worth it? The answer is yes in this moment.’ And that is one of the greatest moments of my life.”

He earned another six medals at the 1979 World Championships, a U.S. record for medals at a single worlds that Simone Biles tied in 2018. The haul included floor exercise and high bar titles, plus a silver medal in the all-around in Fort Worth, Texas.

Thomas also won U.S. all-around titles in 1976, 1977 and 1978 before graduating from Indiana State in 1979.

“He is taking a sport and grafting on new elements to make it an art,” the New York Times reported in 1979. “He is men’s gymnastics’ Baryshnikov.”

After the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, he retired.

“People talk to me all the time, ‘Aren’t you really still bitter about that Olympic thing? You could have been Olympic gold medalist,'” Thomas said in 2003. “I say, ‘Yeah, but you know, I went to the world championships and I won. I went to the Olympics, and I’m an Olympian.”

Thomas came back for a 1992 Olympic bid, becoming the oldest gymnast in history to make the U.S. national team at age 36, but was not chosen for the Barcelona Games. His work in retirement included coaching.

Thomas, who reportedly appeared on The Johnny Carson Show five times, continues to be referred to often during gymnastics broadcasts, given he invented a popular pommel horse skill – the Thomas flair. He also debuted the Thomas salto on floor.

“When [Olympic teammate] Bart [Conner] mentions on TV [commentary], there’s the Thomas flair or there’s the Thomas on floor, those little things are what make my life now,” Thomas said in 2003. “These kinds of things are tremendous.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.