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Miami Olympian Kurt Thomas dies

Medalist began gymnastics training as a student at Miami Central High School

Mar 1979:  Kurt Thomas of the United States in action. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy  /Allsport
Mar 1979: Kurt Thomas of the United States in action. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport (WPLG)

MIAMI, Fla. – Kurt Thomas, the first U.S. male gymnast to win a world championship gold medal, has died.

Thomas, born in Miami, was 64.

Thomas’ family said he died Friday after he suffered a stroke May 24, caused by a tear of the basilar artery in the brain stem.

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

Thomas began his gymnastics training at Miami Central High School and, by 1976, made the U.S. Olympic Team that competed in the Montreal Olympics.

Thomas won the floor exercise in the 1978 world championships in Strasbourg, France, for the first U.S. men’s title. In the 1979 worlds in Fort Worth, Texas, he successfully defended the floor exercise title and won the horizontal bar while adding silver in the all-around, pommel horse and parallel bars.

Thomas. who also captured the American Cup three times, lost a chance for Olympic gold when the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.

“In my mind and my heart, I knew I was the best at that time,” Thomas told the Sun-Sentinel in 1989.

The Miami Connection

His former coach, Bruce Davis, writes about Thomas on his blog, letstalkgymnastics remembering “a young man living with his mother and sister in the Silver Blue Lake Apartments on NW 103rd Street in 1969.” It just so happened the apartments were behind Miami Central, where Thomas would be introduced to formal gymnastics training, according to Davis.

Davis, then head coach at Miami Dade Community College, recalls being introduced to Thomas by the 1970 Orange Bowl queen Earleen Carey, who also did gymnastics.

“She first told me about Kurt,” Davis writes. “She often watched him flipping in the grass by his apartment complex.” It was Carey’s brother who drove “freshman” Thomas to MDCC for the evening community college workouts. The team from Miami Central with Thomas leading the way, won two Greater Miami Athletic Conference (GMAC) Championships in 1972 and 1973. He transferred to Miami Lakes in his senior year in 1974, where he won another GMAC.

Thomas brought a mixture of athleticism and showmanship the elite U.S. men’s program lacked. He landed a scholarship at Indiana State University and led the Sycamores to an NCAA team title in 1977. His popularity on campus at the time ranked second only to future basketball Hall of Famer Larry Bird. Thomas won the AAU’s 1979 James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur and was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2003.

“Kurt was a fierce rival, who went on to become a cherished friend," two-time Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner posted on Twitter. “Proud to have been your teammate. Sending hugs to his wife Beckie, his children, Hunter, Kassidy and Kurt as well as the entire gymnastics community, who lost a true pioneer today.”

Thomas stepped away competition after 1980, and worked as a TV analyst for ABC Sports during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He attempted a comeback in 1989, pointing toward the 1992 Olympics. He made it all the way to the Olympic Trials at age 36 but fell short of earning one of the six Olympic spots. He poured his life into coaching after retirement. He and Beckie owned and ran Kurt Thomas Gymnastics in Frisco, Texas.

American men had struggled to break through internationally before Thomas' arrival. He was an innovator on pommel horse — where the “Thomas Flair” was entered into the Code of Points — and the floor exercise, where his “Thomas Salto” dismount was considered so dangerous it was eventually banned from competition.

Thomas, who appeared regularly on late night talk shows in the 1970s, was the first breakthrough American male star in a sport where the spotlight gravitates heavily toward women.

“All of us in the gymnastics family are sadden, shocked and devastated by the passing of our own,” Nadia Comaneci tweeted. “Love to the family.”

About the Authors:

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local 10.com.