Dianne Durham, the first African American senior national gymnastics champion and a trailblazer in the sport, has died after a short illness, according to her husband, Tom Drahozal.
Durham died at a Chicago hospital, with Drahozal and her sister, Alice Durham, at her side. She was 52.
“She passed peacefully,” Drahozal told ESPN. “She was the love of my life and everything I could have asked for. She was as beautiful a person away from gymnastics as she was within the sport.”
Known for her combination of grace, artistry and power, as well as her joyful personality, Durham and her teammate, Mary Lou Retton, pulled the sport of gymnastics into an era dominated by power tumbling and fast-paced progression.
The last gymnast to beat Retton in all-around competition, in the lead-up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Durham was deprived of a spot on the team due to a combination of injuries and politics.
But it is her achievement as 1983 senior national champion, which launched not only Durham but her coaches, Bela and Martha Karolyi, onto the national stage, for which Durham is most remembered.
“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?” Durham told ESPN last summer. “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.”
For Durham, that win, although hard-fought, was simply one step on her path toward the Olympics. When that path was cut short after the 1984 Olympic trials, Durham took a job coaching with the Karolyis in Houston before eventually relocating to Chicago, where she met Drahozal and became a gym owner, national-level judge and coach.
“I’ve had so many former gymnasts send me messages today,” Drahozal said. “They said she was tough, a great coach who they loved and that she was a great role model for them. I think Dianne would want to be remembered for her personality, and also as a pioneer for minority gymnasts. She was one of the greatest gymnasts of her era, but she also opened the door for the great Black gymnasts who came after her.”
“We are heartbroken to learn of Dianne’s passing,” USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung said in a statement to ESPN. “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.”
Durham is survived by her husband and sister, her father, Ural Durham, niece Allison Woods and nephew Mike Woods Jr. A celebration of life is being planned in her hometown of Gary, Indiana, later in the year.