- Kimberley Guillemet
World Changer of the Month — July 2021: Dianne Durham
In 1983, Dianne Durham became the first African American gymnast to win the title as the all-round champion in the U.S. National Championship. She also won the individual titles for bars, floor and vault, becoming the first American woman to execute a full-twisting layout Tsukahara on vault. Later that year she won the all-around title at the McDonalds International Gymnastics Championships, beating Mary Lou Retton. Ms. Durham said later that despite these historic achievements, she was most concerned with them as part of her road to the Olympics, her ultimate goal.
At the Olympic trials, Ms. Durham suffered a string of injuries, culminating with a torn ankle ligament when she landed a challenging vault. This caused her to withdraw from the trials, with the expectation that she would be petitioned onto the Olympic team. However, through what the Olympic Committee Association later described as a combination of “injuries and a Byzantine selection process,” she was not offered a spot on the 1984 team. Her coach, Bela Karolyi, objected to denying the prior year's national champion a slot on the team, stating, "She was the first Black kid to ever make it to a national title. This is a pretty big injustice to not have Durham on the Olympic team. The team needs her, the country needs her." He did not succeed in persuading the USA Gymnastics Federation. Ms. Durham retired from competition in 1985. She then took a job coaching in Houston before relocating to Chicago. There, she met her husband and became a national-level judge, coach and gym owner.
U.S. Olympic Champion Mary Lou Retton said of her, “Dianne was one of the greatest athletes and the best gymnast of our generation. She had it all: personality, strength, grace. When we trained together, seven or eight hours a day, we really became like sisters. She was always my best and fiercest competitor.”
Ms. Durham was quoted as saying, “I don’t feel sorry for myself,” reflecting on her missed Olympic opportunity. “Nobody is going to give you anything in this life. You have to work for anything and everything you get. And sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want it to go. You fall, but you have to get back up . . . I am happy.”
Ms. Durham is remembered for introducing “power” to American women’s gymnastics and for paving the way for countless gymnasts after her including Betty Okino, Dominique Dawes, Gabrielle Douglas and Simone Biles.
To read more about Ms. Durham’s life and enduring legacy, please visit:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/dianne-durham-dead/2021/02/08/5977a132-6a0e-11eb-9f80-3d7646ce1bc0_story.html, https://www.gymnastics-now.com/dianne-durham-dies-at-52/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dianne_Durham. To see footage of her, please visit: