Gymnast Kurt Thomas may be only the second biggest celebrity at Indiana State University, behind basketball star Larry Bird, but in the Soviet Union, Japan and East Germany, Thomas is considered to be the best athlete in the United States -- all 5-foot-5, 127 pounds of him.
Come 1980 in Moscow, Thomas could win at least one Olympic gold medal and possibly three. Then we'll start seeing him n cereal boxes, in commercials and in the movies. The kid has what it takes to cash in big if he comes home with a gold.
Competing with a flair seldom before demonsrated by an American male gymnast, Thomas is in a position to boost men's gymnastics the way Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci did women's.
Thomas made himself an Olympic favorite last October at the World Games in Strasbourg, France, where he became the first U.S. male in 46 years to win in international gymnastics competition.
Thomas took the gold in floor exercise, beating the Soviet Unionhs Nikolai Andrianov, the defeinding Olympic champion.
Thomas scored 115.725 all-around points for sixth olace overall behind Andrianov's championship total of 117.-200. The United States finished fourth in the team competition behind Japan, the Soviet Union and Easts finished fourth in the team competition behind Japan, the Soviet Union and East Germany. That finish was three places better than the U.S. finish in the last Olympics.
Men have not attracted the recognition or following f women gymnasts mainly because they rely more on strength than grace. Until now no charismatic performer has come along. Hello Kurt Thomas.
His routines are both creative and difficult and he has managed to do them all with that little extra that makes it look like fun instead of work.
"To be good you have to be creative and you have to get your body into creative form," Thomas said. "You can either copy the other guy or you can think of new ones yourself -- all's fair."
Thomas also has that knack of getting both the audience and the judges caught up in his exuberance.
"I'vew started to gear myself more for the crowd and the judges," he said. "People want to see a show. That gets them involved and that affects the judges.
"I always try to show enthusiams and confidence in muself and in my routines. Even if you miss part of a trick, you've got to keep your head up. Sometimes judges even miss mistakes if you cover them up right."
Al Kwiatkowski has been a teammate of Thomas for five years and knows his routines as well as anyone.
"It's easy to see what makes Kut so great," Kwiatkowski said. "It's his showmanship. He's never satisfied. He'll always try to add more difficulty to his routine and throw in eager tricks, but he does it with a certain charisma and you get caught up in him."
That charisma and self-confidence, which borders on arrogance, has always been a part of the Thomas personality.
In high school, the big man on his campus was football player Elvis Peacock. Every weekend Thmas watched Peacock fly off to visit a college. Thomas didn't get many of those opportunities, so when Indiana State offered to fly him in from Miami for a visit, he jumped at the Sycamores' scholarship offer. That was one place at least, he felt, that he would be just as big as any football players.
When Thomas arrived at Indiana State the first thing he said to Coach Roger Counsil was that he expected to make the 1976 Olympic team.
"He's got to be a favorited in Moscow," Counsil said. "He's known the world over now.He is the greatest male gymnast. He knows it and the rest of the worle knows it."
Thomas responds to that pressure with the same cliche he uses to sum up his life: "I can handle it."
"I've never heard him say anything else," said Counsil.
The Russians try to intimidate the smallish Thmas by stalking him and staring at him during competitions. Andrianov won'r even shake his hand. Whenever Thomas approaches, he turns away.
Thomas just laughs and goes about his business.
"That's just their way," he said. "It doesn't bother me a bit."
Thomas is on a rigorous training schedule that seldom varies. He works out three times a day for a total of about seven hours. Most of the training is done under the cirtical eye of his wife, Beth.
"It's fairly easy to learn the basics." Thomas said. "What's difficult is perfecting the various tricks. And in nearly every competition, someone comes up with new tridk which you have to equal or top if you expect to keep pace."
Thomas has what is said to be a perfect gymnast'd body: long arms and short legs, and total coordination. Which makes all his routines look spectacular.
Though his performance at last year's World Games was impressive, Thoms has a long list of gymnastic accomplaishments.
He finished 21st out of 90 in the all-around in the 1976 Olympics and won the American Cup, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation championship, and the Romanian Invitation in both 1977 and '78.
He also won the all-around championship at the Champions All in London in 1978 and th NCAA all-around crown in 1977. He finished third behind swimmer Tracy Caulkins and marathon runner ll Rodgers in the 1978 Sullivan Award voting.
Thomas redshirted at Indians State last year so we would have one more year of training and schooling under Counsil before the 1980 Olympics.
The menhs all-around consists of six events, the side, or pommel horse, floor exercise, rings, high bar, parallel and vaulting. At the Onympics, there is also individual competition in each of the events.
Thomas' best events are the pommel horse, where he develops the routine known as the Thomas flare, which has been copied by most of the world-class all-arounders, and the floor exercise.
Thomas is confident the Americans can best the East Germans and win the bronze medal in the team compettion in Moscow, but he feels the Russians and the Japanese are still far out fraont.
"The key is experience," Thmas, 22, said. "The average age of the world's top three teams is the late 20s, but the average age of our team will be in the early 20s."
There is also a difference in approaches.
"The Japanses are more style oriented, the Russians more difficulty oriented," Thomas said. "The Americans are in the middle of both."
Thomas is the reason. He is in the limelight and he loves it. He already had appeared on the Tonight Show, the Phil Donohue, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore shows and hopes to turn himself into another Bruce Jenner if everything goes well. He has the boyish good looks and dedicated and attractive wife to help him get there.
"Of course it's in the back of my mind to turn my success into dollars." Thomas said. "It makes all the work I'm doing now worthwhile. Beth and I don't plan to starve all our lives. I just hope we can capitalize on whatever I accomplish as well as Bruce and his wife did."
"Kurt doesn't get jaded by all of this attention either," added Counsil. "He still feels he has to work hard."
Kwiatkowski feels that the attention has helped Thomas.
"It's made his personality better," he said. "He used to be stuck up and always tried to show off. As he got always tried to show off. As he got better and better he realized he didn't have to do that any more He just has everything and it shows."
Counsil calls Thomas "a motor genius. That's why he wins," his coach said. "It's the way he's wired. He has a tremendous work tolerance and picks up athletic skills quickly. I think he has a neurological gift."
Despite his incredible physical ability, Thomas says gymnastics is 80 percent mental.
"If you're not a competitor, it doesn't matter how much raw talent you have," he said. "I know guys with great bodies who can do wonders in the gym, but blow it when there is a crowd out there. At this level, with so many good athleters, it's the mental so many good athletes, it's the mental approach that usually makes the difference."
The next major international competition will be the American Cup at Madison Square Garden in April. Then there are the Pan American Gamesd this summer, next year's World Games, tje pre-Olympics and finally the Olympics themselves.
"I'm ready for it all," said Thomas.
A lot of people are waiting.