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Kurt Thomas, Team USA’s First World Champion Gymnast, Dies Following Stroke

By Chrös McDougall | June 06, 2020, 10:27 p.m. (ET)

Kurt Thomas performs during the men's all-around at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships on Oct. 29, 1979 in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

Kurt Thomas, a 1976 Olympian whose 1978 world title was the first by an American gymnast in the modern era, died Friday. He was 64.

“We are profoundly saddened by the passing of Kurt Thomas," said Li Li Leung, CEO of USA Gymnastics. "Beyond the accolades, Kurt was one of the most inspiring and influential male gymnasts in our nation’s history, and he will be greatly missed by our entire community. Our thoughts remain with the Thomas family during this difficult time.”

The pioneering gymnast, famous for his signature moves on floor exercise and pommel horse, had suffered a torn basilar artery in the brain stem that resulted in a severe stroke on May 24, according to International Gymnast Media, which first reported his passing.

Born in Miami, Thomas attended Indiana State University, graduating in 1979.

Thomas won the first of three U.S. all-around titles in 1976, the same year he made his Olympic debut at the Montreal Games. Two years later, Thomas made history by winning the floor exercise gold medal at the 1978 world championships in Strasbourg, France. He won two more world titles the next year, on floor and high bar, at the world championships in Fort Worth, Texas. He also finished second in the all-around, parallel bars and pommel horse, and third with the team.

That year he won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete and was named CBS’s Athlete of the Year. However, hopes of winning more medals at the Olympic Games Moscow 1980 were dashed when the U.S. boycotted.

Thomas retired after that, and later served as a TV broadcaster at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. Between he starred in the 1985 martial arts film “Gymkata.” He wasn’t quite done with competitive gymnastics, though, and a comeback saw him get as far as the 1992 Olympic trials at age 36.

Following his competitive career Thomas and his wife Beckie ran a gymnastics school in Frisco, Texas. He was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2003. 

“Yesterday I lost my universe, my best friend and my soul mate of twenty-four years,” Beckie Thomas told International Gymnast. “Kurt lived his life to the extreme, and I will be forever honored to be his wife.”

Many in the gymnastics community took to social media Saturday to pay their respects.

“Kurt Thomas was a fierce rival, who went on to become a cherished friend,” tweeted Bart Conner, a 1976 Olympic teammate who went on to win two gold medals at the 1984 Games. “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. RIP”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.