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Trailblazing gymnast Dianne Durham dies at 52

Jack Baer
·3-min read
Dianne Durham, 15, of Gary, Ind., right, signs autographs after winning the women's title at the McDonald's U.S.A. Gymnastic Championships at the University of Illinois in Chicago, June 5, 1983. She is the first Black woman to win a major national gymnastics title. (AP Photo/Lisa Genesen)
Dianne Durham didn't need the Olympics to become a pioneer in gymnastics. (AP Photo/Lisa Genesen)

Dianne Durham, the first Black woman to win a USA Gymnastics national championship, died Thursday, USA Gymnastics announced. She was 52.

Durham’s husband, Tom Drahozal, told the Associated Press she died of a short illness.

Durham made history in 1983 with her domination of the U.S. nationals. At only 14 years old, Durham captured not only the all-around title, but also the gold medal in the balance beam, floor exercise and vault, plus a silver in the uneven bars.

From USA Gymnastics:

“We are heartbroken to learn of Dianne’s passing,” said USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung. “As an icon and trailblazer in our sport, Dianne opened doors for generations of gymnasts who came after her, and her legacy carries on each day in gyms across the country. Our thoughts are with her friends and family during this difficult time.”

A teammate of Mary Lou Retton under legendary coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, Durham was part of a pivotal generation of gymnastics stars. However, a controversial sequence of events later resulted in her exclusion from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

Durham missed the 1983 world championships due to injury, and finished outside the top 4 at the U.S. Olympic trials after an ankle injury on the vault led to her withdrawal. Per ESPN, Durham’s coaches believed they could petition to include her on the Olympic team’s practice squad if she was scratched, then make the team from there. However, the rigid selection process allowed for no flexibility along those lines.

While Durham’s talents were hardly in question, her lack of participation in the previous world championships and low finish in the Olympic trials left her on the outside looking in when the Olympics came to Los Angeles. Years later, Durham told ESPN she wished she had simply pushed through her uneven bars routine with a different landing.

The end result was Durham missing a shot at gymnastics’ biggest stage, where Retton came through for a historic gold medal win in the all-around. Durham retired from competition soon after.

Dianne Durham was a pioneer

Durham’s legacy is still felt in modern gymnastics, however, especially among the many Black gymnasts dominating the scene today. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles retweeted one such endorsement: “Dianne walked so that Dominique Dawes could run so that Gabby Douglas could fly so that Simone Biles could launch a rocketship.”

Durham’s husband believed that she also influenced the nature of the sport alongside Retton, as well as leading the way for Black gymnasts, via the AP:

“I think between her and Mary Lou Retton, they felt they introduced more of a power gymnastics,” said Durham’s husband, Tom Drahozal. “Dianne was a pioneer for Black gymnasts as well ... She paved the way for others.”

“The door was open by Dianne.”

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