Kurt Thomas, almost singlehandedly, has brought the United States men out of the wilderness and into the limelight of international gymnastics.
Thomas is a serious contender for three gold medals in the Moscow Olympics and he could lead the U.S. to an unprecedented bronze medal in the team competition. He is that good.
Thomas, who just graduated from Indiana State University, the school that basketballer Larry Bird made famous, is already probably the best American male gymnast of all times and the defending world champion in floor exercise.
His best chances at the gold in Moscow are in the floor exercise, the pommel horse and the all-round.
Kurt is definitely a contender for the gold in all three," said Frank Bare, the executive director of the United States Gymnastics Federation. "Your need to come into the competition with a name and Kurt is the only one we have who is highly regarded enough internationally."
The last international competition before the Olympics will be the 1979 World Championships in Fort Worth Dec. 2-9. That competition also will serve as the qualifying meet for the Olympics, with the top 12 teams making it to Moscow.
Also qualfying for the Olympics will be the top three finishers in each event whose countries do not qualify teams.
Also qualifying for the Olympics will be the top three finishers in each event whose countries do not qualify teams.
The trials for the U.S. women's team will be June 27-30 at the University of Utah and for the men's team Sept. 21-22 at Colorado State University. Each of the two teams will be made up of six gymnasts plus one alternate.
The American women's team most likely will be led by Rhonda Schwandt, 16, of Los Angeles. She is recovering from knee surgery, but is still this country's best all-round female performer and has a decent shot at an all-round medal in Moscow.
Reports of the athletic demise of Romania's Nadia Comaneci were both premature andd exaggerated. As evidenced by her performance in the recent European championships, the princess of the 1976 Games very well may become the full fledged queen of the 1980 Games.
Comaneci scored 39.40 out of a possible 40 in winning the last European championships and a scored perfect 10 in floor exercise in the recent World Cup championships.
The Soviet Union will be favored to take the Olympic team title, but Comaneci's Romanian team will give the Russians a run for the gold.
East Germany is the favorite for the bronze medal, but Hungary and the United States also are in contention.
In the men's competition, Japan and the Soviet Union are by far the world leaders, with the Americans and East Germans closing ground.
There are six individual events in the men's competition, plus the all-round and the team competition. The individual events are floor exercise, pommmel horse, vault, parallel bars, rings and horizontal bar.
The women have four individual events in addition to the all-round and team competition. Their events are floor exercise, vault, uneven parallel bars and the balance beam.
All Olympic gymnasts must compete in compulsory and optional routines in each of the events with top 36 finishers advancing to the all-round finals.
The top eight finishers in each event after the all-round preliminaries compete for the three medals in each individual event.
The biggest obstacle to Thomas in the men's all-round is the defending Olympic and world champion, Nikolai Andrianov of the Soviet Union.
The next best Soviet is probably Alexandre Ditiatin, 19, the current world champion on the rings and the World Cup all-round champion. Stoyan Deltchev of Bulgaira is another all-round gold medal threat.
The Japanese are always strong in gymnastics, having won the team title the last five Olympics. Their top performer right now probably in Shigeru Kasamatsu.
"Their names aren't necessarily recognizeable, but they are consistently tough," said Bare.
The U.S. men's team is basically four deep with Thomas leading the way. Behind him is Bart Conner from the University of Oklahoma, James Hartung from the University of Nebraska and Phil Cahoy, 17, who is fresh out of high school in Omaha.
Conner's specialty is the parallel bars, Hartung is strong in the floor exercise and pommel horse and Cahoy is steady in all the events.
In Olympic gymnastics competition, however, an individual must compete in all events, so only the top all-round performers will make it to Moscow. There is no room on the team for specialists.
As an example, Marcia Frederick, the world champion in the uneven parallel bars, probably won't make the U.S. team because she is not a particulary strong all-round performer.
The American women's team will be very young. The most promising could be Tracee Talavera, 12 of Eugene, Ore. An Olympic contestant must turn 14 the same calender year as the Olympics, and Talavera will just make it.
Another American hopeful is Jackie Cassello, 13, of Hempstead, N.Y., now living and training in Silver Spring. She did well in the U.S. championships in May and, if she continues to improve, could make it to Moscow.
In addition to Comaneci, the top women gymnasts in the world are the current all-round champion, Elena Mukhina, 18, of the Soviet Union and teammate Stella Zakharova, 15, the current all-round World Cup champion.
Emillia Eberle of Romania gives her country a strong one-two punch with Comaneci.
In last year's world championships, the U.S. finished fifth behind the Soviet Union, Romania, East Germany and Hungary. CAPTION: Picture, Kurt Thomas goes through routine on parallel bars. AP