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Dianne Durham, first Black US women’s gymnastics champion, dies

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Dianne Durham in the women's individual finals of the McDonald's International Gymnastic Championships in Los Angeles, on Aug. 29, 1983. (Lennox McLendon / AP)
NBC News

Dianne Durham, the first Black woman to win a USA Gymnastics national championship, died Thursday in Chicago following a short illness, her husband said. She was 52.

Durham was a pioneer in American gymnastics. Her victory in the all-around at the 1983 national championships as a teenager was the first by a Black woman in the organization’s history.

“I think between her and Mary Lou Retton, they felt they introduced more of a power gymnastics,” said Durham’s husband, Tom Drahozal. “Dianne was a pioneer for Black gymnasts as well … She paved the way for others.”

That group includes Olympic champions Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas as well as Dominique Dawes, a gold medalist on the storied 1996 U.S. Olympic team.

“The door was open by Dianne,” Drahozal said.

Durham claimed not to have thought about the importance of her victory.

“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.com last year. “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.”

Durham and Retton were the first star American pupils of Bela and Martha Karolyi, who moved from Romania to the United States in the early 1980s. Durham moved to train with the Karolyis in Texas and appeared to be on the fast track to a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team. She won the McDonald’s International Invitational in Los Angeles in 1983, a meet held at Pauley Pavilion, the site of the Olympic gymnastics competition a year later.

Injuries, however, slowed her momentum. Durham missed the 1983 world championships and was sixth after the first day of the 1984 Olympic trials. An ankle injury on vault — her signature event — led Karolyi to scratch her from the uneven bars. The confusion in the moment and the ensuing fallout ended with Durham missing an opportunity to be on the Olympic team.