Dianne Durham Leaves Behind a Legacy

By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics 

Dianne Durham stood in the corner of the floor exercise with a look of determination in her eyes. It was the 1983 U.S. Championships and Durham, at just 14 years of age, was 90 seconds away from making history. 

No Black gymnast had ever won a U.S. national title, but Durham did not let that faze her. She nailed her floor routine, displaying a combination of power and grace not often seen in her era. The arena was electric, the crowd was on their feet. One group of fans held a banner that read “We love Dianne.”

Durham had just etched her name in the history books. When all was said and done, Durham walked away as the national champion on vault, beam, floor, and in the All-Around.  

Durham set a precedent for the future generation of Black gymnasts. She overcame racial prejudice and broke barriers in a sport dominated by white women. For young Black gymnasts around the country, Durham was proof that they too could achieve glory at the sports highest level. 

All it takes is one person to prove it can be done. Inspiration then trickles down from generation to generation. Durham could have been the first Black gymnast to compete at the Olympics for the United States, but an unfortunately timed injury and intense confusion over qualifying rules prevented her from reaching that milestone. 

Seven years after Durham retired from the sport, Betty Okino and Dominique Dawes achieved this feat, becoming the first Black gymnasts to win an Olympic medal for the United States with their team bronze medal at the 1992 Games. Four years later, Dawes competed in her second Olympics, and took home a bronze on floor and helped the U.S. win team gold.

 
#RIPDianne Today the gymnastics world lost a trailblazer, a legend. Dianne paved a way for generations of young brown skinned girls like myself, with dreams of flipping across the world gymnastics stage. One of the lucky ones, I had the opportunity to experience the blessing of Diane’s friendship. A woman of deep spiritual conviction, I know she now rests in the arms of her savior, and in this, my heart feels at peace. To Tom, Dianne’s husband, our prayers enfold you. May they bring you some level of peace and comfort. Rest In Peace Dianne Durham
 
 
I am in disbelief. It’s taken me a full day to digest such a loss for all of those who knew her. Throughout these last few years many people have told me that I am a trailblazer for @gabbycvdouglas and @simonebiles but we can’t forget how you broke down barriers…and opened the doors for me to lead the younger generations of athletes. Rest In Peace, Dianne…I’ll cherish your kind words and the very touching gift you gave me before my 96 Olympics….it kept my spirits up.
 
Three decades after that dynamic floor routine that clinched her the national title, Durham’s impact on the sport can still be felt today. Dianne Durham walked, so Betty Okino and Dominique Dawes could run, so Gabby Douglas could fly, so Simone Biles could soar to unprecedented heights.  Nearly 30 years after Durham became national champion, Gabby Douglas became the first Black gymnast to win the Olympic all-around title. Four years later, Simone Biles dominated the Rio Olympics and is now considered by many to be the greatest gymnast of all time.
 
After battling a a short illness according to her husband, Tom Drahozal, Durham’s passing on Feb. 4 has left the gymnastics community devastated. Fans, friends, and family of Durham are now calling on USA Gymnastics to honor her legacy by placing her name in the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame—right where it belongs.
 
 
There aren’t words special enough to describe Dianne Durham and what she meant to gymnastics or to those of us who loved, admired and respected her or got the biggest kick out of her spirited humor and unparalleled spunkiness! I first met Dianne when I was 20 and training in Chicago. She was 11 years old living in Gary, Indiana and had come to work out or meet Bill Sands. I don’t remember the specifics, I only remember HER! It was long before anyone knew she would soon blaze trails and take the sport by storm, but I can assure you she made a lasting and memorable impression!
 
In a statement, USA Gymnastics president Li Li Leung said the organization is “heartbroken.” 
 
“As an icon and trailblazer in our sport, Dianne opened doors for generations of gymnasts who came after her, her legacy carries on each day in gyms across the country,” Leung said. “Our thoughts are with her friends and family during this difficult time.”
 
Inside Gymnastics celebrates this extraordinary woman who forever has our hearts.