American gymnastics can be divided into two time periods: Before Kurt Thomas and after him. Thomas revolutionized the sport with inventive moves, dogged determination and championship medals. He was a showman. A trailblazer. An American original. His legacy lives on in the training center and the foundation he created.
"Kurt revolutionized the sport of gymnastics," Kurt's wife Beckie Thomas tells Local Profile. "He brought a mix of showmanship and athleticism to the men's elite program that the U.S. was lacking." Kurt has not one, but four skills named after him: The Thomas Hop on the high bar, the Thomas Mount on the parallel bars, the Thomas Flair on the pommel horse and the Thomas Salto on floor — the last of which was effectively banned after being removed from the gymnastics code of points in the wake of several serious accidents.
In the decades following World War II, gymnasts from the Soviet Union, East Germany and Japan were formidable. They were Olympic gold and seemingly untouchable. "One day while we were talking about the great gymnasts from around the world, Kurt said, 'We can beat those guys,'" recalls Burt Conner, who won gold for the U.S. men's gymnastics team at the 1984 Olympics. "He was the first U.S. gymnast that truly thought we could win against the legendary teams from the Soviet Union and Japan." According to Conner, Kurt was the first to have the courage and audacity to go against the world's best — laying the groundwork for future U.S. Olympic gold.
In 1978, Kurt became the first American male gymnast to win a gold medal at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. But Kurt wasn't done, and a year later, he followed that up by winning six medals at the world championship and set the record for the most medals won at a single world championship by an American gymnast. It wasn't until 39 years later in 2018 that another American — Simone Biles — matched that feat.
On Friday, September 16, the Kurt Thomas Foundation will hold its gala at the Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West Hotel. The event will celebrate the sport of gymnastics and the legacy of Kurt, who passed away in 2020.
"Kurt was ahead of his time," says Olympian Mitch Gaylord. "As a competitor, there was no one more intense than Kurt — he wanted to be the best, trained to become the best, and nothing was going to stop him. Kurt was a charismatic performer, exciting and fun to watch. People couldn’t help but cheer for him bringing audiences to their feet after his routines."
Beckie and Kurt moved to Frisco in 1996. It was a different time. The population hovered around 50,000, Frisco High School was the town's only high school and the Dallas North Tollway ended just north of 121. Frisco is now booming and bigger, with cranes towering over development after development. "This city is special," says Beckie. "The proximity to everything and potential to grow is very attractive to young families. We love this community and the people we welcome into our gym family."
The Thomases founded Kurt Thomas Gymnastics, which specializes in training athletes ages three through 18. "It is not a franchise, but a privately owned family business with a love for children and the sport of gymnastics," Beckie points out, as the training center enters its 24th year. Each instructor is trained through the program USA Gymnastics and also has passed a thorough background check and is SafeSport Certified. To date, Kurt Thomas Gymnastics' record is impressive: Over 1,800 state, regional and national titles and 19 athletes earning college scholarships. "Our facility is gorgeous," says Beckie "and just had a 5,000 square foot expansion allowing us more space and new equipment to train future champions."
As a teenager, Kurt Thomas was lucky to team up with local coaches in Miami to help him start his gymnastic journey. He never forgot the value of giving back to the community and helping young athletes. Kurt established his foundation in 2003, but, as Beckie says, life became busy and the foundation was temporarily put aside.
"Upon Kurt's passing, I was given a box of notes all in his handwriting," says Beckie. "It was like receiving a step-by-step manual for his legacy to continue." All of Kurt's notes on the foundation were compiled, listing his goals. Beckie decided to carry on and finish what Kurt's wishes were in establishing the foundation so many years ago. Fellow gymnasts continue to lend their support. “Kurt was very innovative and he left a great legacy on our sport, and with this foundation, his legacy continues," says Nadia Comăneci.
Each year, the foundation selects a deserving young gymnast who embodies the qualities of Kurt Thomas and gives them a year-long training scholarship to continue the sport. The foundation also gives an award, the Thomas Flair award, to those who, like Kurt, impacted gymnastics.
"When Kurt and I opened the gym, he always had a vision and a purpose," says Beckie. "Every day when he walked in, everyone — gymnasts and staff — would stand up a little straighter and try a little harder." He pushed himself and everyone else to be their best, without taking themselves, or himself, too seriously. His legacy continues in the foundation that bears his name.
The 2022 Kurt Thomas Foundation Gala will be held at the Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West Hotel on September 16. You can see the silent auction preview here and learn more about the foundation at its official site.