Legacy of first Black woman to win a US gymnastics championship lives on

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Before Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas wowed the world and dared many to believe, and even before Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino, there was Dianne Durham.

Durham was the first Black woman to win a U.S. gymnastics national championship.

“People referred to her as a pioneer and trailblazer,” Durham’s husband Tom Drahozal said.

Drahozal married Dianne Durham in 1994 and witnessed firsthand much of what defined his wife’s career and life.

“She always kept telling me that you know she loves gymnastics and she tells me it’s the greatest sport there is,” Drahozal said.

Durham grew up in Gary, where her parents enrolled her in gymnastics to stop her from tearing up furniture. Soon afterwards, she was tearing up gymnastics circuits, winning junior championships.

In 1981, Durham moved to Houston to train with famed gymnastic coach Bela Karolyi. By the time she was 14, she was setting the senior circuit on fire, winning gold medals in all-around, balance beam, vault and floor exercises, all while changing the way women approached the sport.

“Between Dianne and Mary Lou Retton, they introduced power gymnastics,” Drahozal said.

Paul Ziert is a close friend of Durham, as well as the personal coach of two-time Olympic champion Bart Conner.

“She was so vulnerable as she performed, that’s why she attracted such a huge fan base. Everybody thought it was because she was a Black gymnast, but it was really her commanding personality and what she gave to everybody,” Ziert said.

Durham was at the top of her game and was considered to be a shoo-in for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

“People forget, just before the Olympic trials when she got hurt, she was actually the last gymnast to ever defeat Mary Lou Retton before the Olympics, so there was great spirit, great rivalry, but they were sisters really at that time,” Ziert said.

As Ziert mentioned, Durham injured her ankle on the vault during the trials and was encouraged to withdraw from the Olympics.

“She was told, you know at the time, don’t risk your injury. Your spot on the Olympic team is assured. You’ve done enough for this country, your record speaks for itself. And then she found out shortly after that that was not the case,” Drahozal said.

The rules stated that because Durham didn’t complete the trials, she wasn’t eligible for the Olympics.

“It wasn’t really fair, we never ironed it out at the time, it still hasn’t been completely investigated or gone through to see what happened,” Ziert said.

Durham later retired from competition, going on to perform in gymnastics shows with Ziert. She eventually opened her own studio.

In February of 2021, Durham died at the age of 52 after a short illness.

Four months after her death and after years of her colleagues pushing USA Gymnastics to honor Durham, it finally announced she would be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, Class of 2021.

“Not only because she made history and historic events should be in a Hall of Fame, but also she was actually not handled what I would say properly in those really intense moments as you try to qualify for the Olympics,” Ziert said.

In a bittersweet moment, those closest to Durham wish she was around for the recognition.

“She never felt this recognition would come until she passed away. She’d be overwhelmed by people remembering her contribution to the sport,” Drahozal said.

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