"Our flag has been down at the bottom of the box so long that it was great to see it flying at the top today." Kurt Thomas, world champion gymnast

Kurt Thomas took the American flag out of mothballs and waved it before the eyes of the gymnastics world this afternoon.

With four dazzling performances -- all scored as near-perfect 9.9s -- Thomas won two gold medals and two silver medals in the individual-event finals of the 20th World Championships.

"I think I made history today," said Thomas, still dazed by an achievement that even he had not foreseen.

In one afternoon, Thomas amassed more gold and silver than all the American gymnasts in history -- both male and female combined -- in all the world championships stretching back to 1903.

Americans here were left almost speechless by their own success as Thomas' cohort -- teammate Bart Conner -- also won a gold medal and a bronze.

In 19 previous World Championships, America had garnered a pathetic total of two golds, one silver and one bronze. Now, thanks to a silver in all-around competition by Thomas on Friday and a team bronze on Thursday, the U.S. has collected three golds, three silvers and two bronzes in the last four days.

"At 11 o'clock tonight, it'll all hit me," said U.S. Coach Roger Council, "and I'll say, Oh my god, what did we do?"

What Thomas and Conner did, in these first championships ever held outside Europe, was to transform America from a gymnastic nonentity into a world power on the eve of the Moscow Olympics.

"My goals," said Thomas, "were to move up from sixth (last year) overall, and to win one medal in one individual event -- preferably a gold.

"To say I'm surprised would be an understatement," said Thomas who won in the floor exercises (tied for first with East Germany's Roland Bruckner) and the horizontal bar.

"It was great having the crowd behind us. I like that positive pressure. Also, I watched my competitors all day because the more pressure I feel, the better I do," said Thomas, gobbling a steady stream of salted peanuts the way he had gobbled silvers in the pommel horse and parallel bars.

"America now belongs to the world of gymnastics," said Council.

"For years, no one but Russians, Japanese and East Germans could even hope for so much as a bronze medal in the worlds," said connor, who nailed a 9.9 to win the parallel bars. "It takes years to work your way up the ladder, earning the respect of the judges.

"And now," beamed Conner, "it may take years to get rid of us."

Thomas began a day-long chauvanistic uproar in Tarrant County Convention Center in the afternoon's first event.

Thomas tumbled and hand-sprung his way across the mat in the floor exercises -- announcing himself with a daring 1 1/2-twisting, 1 3/4 somersault. eThe crowd of 8,000 booed when Bruckner received a 9.9 to the Thomas, although the East German had some ragged edges.

"My exercise was cleaner," said Thomas graciously, "but his had more difficulty. So i guess it was fair."

It was also Thomas who closed the show in grand style with a clutch performance on the high bar when he knewthat he needed a 9.9 to win by .025 over two Russians.

Thomas ripped off swinging German giants, hit a reverse flyaway perfectly, added a Russian specialty, the Deltchev, then dismounted with a risky "half-in, half-out."

The innocent sounding "half-in, half-out," really means a half-twist into a double somersault with another half-twist at the landing.

"I knew I had to stick my dismount (do it perfectly) to win," said Thomas.

"Even a little step and I'd lose."

The 5-foot-7, 127-pound Thomas' feet hit the mat with the sound of an anvil in the silent hall.Neither budged. His entire routine was letter perfect -- worthy of a 9.9 (the highest score men's judges ever seen to give). He had won.

Twice this Texas crowd stood today for the Soviet anthem, for Ditiatin's victories in the rings and vault, and once for Hungary's Zoltan Magyar, winner on the horse.

But, after the final two events, as first Conner, then Thomas took the highest step, the announcer told the tittering crowd, "Would you please rise for the playing of our national anthem."

Amidst the international flavor of seeing diplomatic dignitaries sipping Mr. Pibb, and Russian gymnasts begging their coaches for an exotic shopping trip to K-Mmart and Safeway, the public story was the American men.The secret story hidden beneath the scores was the newly unveiled Chinese.

"The Russians are still, overall, the best in the world, and the Americans made news," smiled Conner. "But the gymnastics community will leave here talking about China."

"I've seen Chinese observers at our meets," said Council. "Now I know why. They are so frighteningly good . . . trying things that no one else in the world can do, that I think they intimidated a lot of judges here."

Yuejiu Li has been seen in practice here doing triple flips and double (somersault) layouts in floor exercise -- acrobatics on which a mistake means a broken neck.

Fei Tong had veteran gymnasts gasping here with a high bar routine that included a one-arm giant (on which one arm endures the centrifugal stress of 10 times body weight), plus a reverse Hecht off the bar and a double-twisting double-somersault dismount.

The crowds from Cow Town yawned, unaware of what they were seeing. But pockets of aficianados smote their foreheads with their hands. They were glimpsing the future.

"We have no names for some of what they've doing," said Council. "We can't evaluate it because we've never seen it."

For five miles away, Fort Worth looks like Oz. Every skyscraper on the city's horizon is etched in vivid yellow Christmas lights so that, at night, the town's skyline is a brilliant golden outline on a pitch black backdrop.

An outline equally stark has been shown to the tidy universe of gymnastics -- an etched outline of change soon to come. America, after what Conner called "a five year plan of sorts," has arrived. China is now paying its dues in a totally subjective sport where reputation and tradition are the twin autocrats.

"Everything in gymnastics carries over," said Thomas this week. "What we do here can help us in Moscow."

And, after a glorious day for American gymnasts, Thomas, like many Americans, suddenly had to change his plans for the months to come.

"We're going to Moscow to struggle for a team medal," he said proudly. "And I'm going there to win." "To win which of the six individual events?" he was asked.

"No, you've got that wrong," smiled Thomas. "To win the big one -- the all-around."