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Thomas Still Has Flair for the Gymnastic : Gymnastics: A senior member in terms of age, the onetime star of the sport now enjoys just being part of the show.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kurt Thomas is milking his gymnastics career for all it’s worth, which has turned out to be considerable.

His career included two NCAA all-around championships at Indiana State, a place on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, a berth on the 1980 team, three American Cup championships, a No. 2 world ranking and the Sullivan Award in 1979. Thomas even invented a trick on the the pommel horse that was immediately dubbed the Thomas Flair.

Enough seemed to be enough.

Thomas left amateur gymnastics in 1980. He dabbled in broadcasting, ran a summer camp and formed a national touring company that performed two summers at Sea World.

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But like other aging athletes have found, retirement didn’t fit as comfortably as Thomas, now 36, thought it would. In 1989, he renewed his training schedule with his sights set for this year’s U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials. The trials were to be the crux of his comeback, with the Barcelona Olympics to follow.

But it was short-lived. Thomas finished 16th.

“I felt good and thought I could do well enough to make the team,” Thomas said Sunday night after he performed with the Tour of Olympic and World Champion Gymnasts at the Sports Arena. “I had enough sponsorship and support that there was no reason not to do it.”

Although he didn’t make the team, his effort was impressive. Thomas, a grandfather by this sport’s standards, proved he could compete with the nation’s best.

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And he impressed tour organizers enough to get an invitation to join a troupe comprising 1992 Olympians primarily. Thomas, as much as two decades older than many of the tour’s performers, was flattered.

“For me, to still be performing with gymnasts of this caliber at age 36, it’s exciting,” he said. “It’s a big consolation for me because I didn’t make the Olympic team. You just don’t get opportunities like this when you’re 36.”

Even with the age difference, Thomas doesn’t feel out of place.

“I don’t really feel like I’m so different from everyone else,” he said. “There are so many things we do together. We’re all really close. I try to hang with them at their level, but it is obvious that I’m not 16, either.”

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While many of the Sunday crowd of approximately 6,000 came to see the likes of U.S. darlings Trent Dimas and Shannon Miller and former Soviets Vitaly Scherbo, Tatiana Gutsu and Svetlana Boguinskaia, Thomas wasn’t exactly a forgotten figure.

“If the kids don’t know who I am, their parents do,” he said with a laugh.

Thomas’ popular pommel horse routine stood up with the best and he choreographed a group number that had the crowd cheering.

It hasn’t bothered Thomas that the tour’s biggest attractions are Dimas and Miller.

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“Not at all,” he said. “I’ve had my time. I was there when all the screams were for me. I was just happy for all the support I have had.”

Much has changed in gymnastics since Thomas was at his prime, but he sees the evolution of the sport more in terms of technical advancement. Still, Thomas thinks there is much more gymnasts can and will do.

“I see tricks are more refined now, but I think you’ll see more and more difficulty in the future. The sky’s the limit,” he said.

Thomas’ failure to make the 1992 Olympic team ended his comeback, but not his participation in gymnastics. He coaches at his gymnastics school in Pennsylvania and hopes to continue touring.

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“I’ve gone through every stage in this sport,” he said. “I’ve competed, I’ve done TV, I’ve written a book, I’ve been in a movie, I’ve run my own tours and exhibitions, and now I’m coaching.

“This is what I am. Gymnastics is my life. This is it. There’s nothing else.”

Gymnastics Notes

Mood music: Tour organizers and choreographers picked out appropriate tunes for the gymnasts to perform to. On the balance beam, Shannon Miller performed to “One Moment In Time,” and Tatiana Gutsu, who fell on the balance beam early in the competition in Barcelona but came back to take the all-around gold, performed with Natalie Cole and her dad Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable.” In one of the night’s highlights, Trent Dimas, who became the first American since 1932 to win an individual Olympic gold medal in a non-boycotted year, recreated his winning high bar routine with “Bad to the Bone” wailing in the background.

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