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Dianne Durham (1968–2021), first Black national gymnastics champion

by Linnea Crowther

Dianne Durham was the first Black gymnast to win a U.S. national championship, in 1983.

Dreams of Olympic glory

Durham trained with notable Romanian-American coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, and she was a teammate of Mary Lou Retton. The two trained and competed side by side, and Durham was on track to be an Olympic star. She won the junior national title in 1981, and she went on to further greatness in 1983, when she competed for the senior national title. Durham won the national titles in vault, floor, and bars, beating Retton and becoming the all-around women’s champion and the first Black gymnast to reach that height.

Durham seemed to be a shoo-in for the 1984 Olympics, and if she qualified, she would be the first Black woman to compete in the Games as a U.S. gymnast. But she had injuries earlier in the year that hampered her performance at nationals, and at the Olympic trials, her bid for glory went wrong. A combination of an error on the vault, confusion around how to proceed, and organizational politics kept her off the Olympic team. Retton won the Olympic gold that Durham had striven for.

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Durham retired from competition in 1985 and became a gymnastics coach. She later opened a gym in the Chicago area and worked as a national-level judge. Her

Notable quote

“People said, you’re the first Black – I’m using ‘Black’ because ‘African American’ wasn’t a term in my era – national champion. Do you know that didn’t go through my head one time? Not one time. Do you know how many people had to tell me that? I could not understand why that was such a humongous deal.” —from a 2020 interview with ESPN

Tributes to Dianne Durham

Full obituary: NWI Times

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