Dianne Durham, the first Black national champion of US gymnastics, dies at 52

Dianne Durham, 15, of Gary, Ind., right, signs autographs after winning the women's title at...
Dianne Durham, 15, of Gary, Ind., right, signs autographs after winning the women's title at the McDonald's U.S.A. Gymnastic Championships at the University of Illinois in Chicago, June 5, 1983. She is the first Black woman to win a major national gymnastics title. (AP Photo/Lisa Genesen)(Associated Press)
Published: Feb. 6, 2021 at 1:02 PM EST
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(CNN) -At just 14 years old, Dianne Durham stood before thousands of spectators on the biggest stage in American gymnastics.

She’d just hurt her foot in an earlier, near-perfect balance beam routine -- but she wasn’t thinking about the pain, she told a CBS reporter. She’d been “having too much fun to let it bother” her, she said.

She didn’t let the pressure of being one of the only Black competitors at the 1983 Gymnastics Championships of the USA bother her either -- she was poised to become its first Black champion.

Dressed in a purple patterned leotard, Durham paused on the mat, took a deep breath -- and then she leapt.

In under two minutes, she breezed through an effortless floor routine, soaring through the air with the grace of a trained dancer and the strength of someone much older. Finishing with a double twist, she landed with her arms raised in victory.

The crowd roared. Fans holding a large banner that read “We love Dianne” rose to their feet.

Durham’s overall performance earned her four gold medals and the distinction of being the first Black gymnast to become the US all-around champion.

That remarkable performance is rarely mentioned among the seminal moments of US women’s gymnastics. But her career, however brief, still set a precedent for the Black gymnasts and Olympians who would follow.

Durham, who went on to become a gymnastics coach, died Thursday, USA Gymnastics confirmed. Her husband, Tom Drahozal, told CNN that the 52-year-old died after a short illness.

“Her personality was bubbly and she was a very charismatic individual who was respected and admired by a lot of people,” Drahozal said. “Whether highest level or recreation class, all the students admired her because she treated them all the same.”

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