Dianne Durham, first Black national gymnastics champion, dead at 52

Renowned for her elegance and strength, Durham was coached by the legendary Bela and Martha Karolyi, then worked for them.

Trailblazing athlete Dianne Durham, the first African American senior national gymnastics champion in the nation, died Thursday at the age of 52 after a short illness. 

She died at a Chicago hospital with her husband, Tom Drahozal, and sister Alice Durham by her side. 

Dianne Durham, shown here in 1993, was America’s first Black senior national gymnastics champion. She died Thursday after a short illness.

Drahozal told ESPN his wife’s transition was peaceful. 

“She was the love of my life and everything I could have asked for,” he said. “She was as beautiful a person away from gymnastics as she was within the sport.” 

Durham was a teammate of legendary gymnastic Olympian Mary Lou Retton. She was actually the last gymnast to defeat Retton in an all-around competition before the 1984 Olympics, which was held in Los Angeles. However, Durham was denied a place on the U.S. Olympic Team — a decision made, according to ESPN, “due to a combination of injuries and politics.” 

Renowned for her elegance, flair and strength, Durham was coached by Bela and Martha Karolyi, who would later become synonymous with the sport. 

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She, too, went on to become a coach. She worked with the Karolyis before ultimately moving to Chicago, where she married a man she met there, and they opened a gym. She was also a judge on the national level. 

Drahozel told ESPN many gymnasts reached out to him to express their condolences.

“They said she was tough, a great coach who they loved and that she was a great role model for them,” he said. “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.”

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Li Li Leung, chief executive officer of USA Gymnastics, told ESPN in a statement its officials “are heartbroken to learn of Dianne’s passing. 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,” said Leung, “during this difficult time.”

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