How Dianne Durham, Bela Karolyi's first national champion, paved the way for Black gymnasts

Dianne Durham was the first elite gymnast Bela Karolyi coached in the U.S. after he and his wife, Martha, defected from Romania in 1981. Duane Cheers

DIANNE DURHAM STOOD at the start of the vaulting runway at the 1984 U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials and stared toward her future. One of the best vaulters in the country, she knew only a layout full Tsukahara and a solid uneven bars routine stood between her and an opportunity to compete for Olympic gold.

Durham had overcome an injury-plagued stretch to arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, for the Olympic trials with her teammate Mary Lou Retton and coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. She had already made history as the first African American senior national champion in 1983. Now, with the extraordinary talent and self-assurance that had carried her from Gary, Indiana, to the top level of the sport, she was ready to take the next step.

After the first day of competition, the 15-year-old was in sixth place and firmly in the mix to make the seven-person team. Four years earlier, Luci Collins had become the first Black gymnast to qualify for the U.S. women's Olympic team. But because of the country's boycott of the Moscow Games, she never had the opportunity to compete. Durham was considered a sure thing, the athlete who would complete that journey.

Durham and Retton had trained together in the Karolyis' gym for most of the previous two years. Pre-Olympic stories touted them as a powerful one-two combination that could help the U.S. surpass the favorite -- the Karolyis' former team, Romania. Durham had been the last gymnast to beat Retton in all-around competition. In the lead-up to the Los Angeles Summer Games, she was hailed as both a medal contender and a barrier breaker in a largely white, suburban sport.

"What she did is open the door and say any young girl, not any young white girl, can win and be great in this sport," says Durham's longtime friend Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine.

But at the 1984 Olympic trials, a dramatic, confusing sequence of events would deprive Durham of a spot on the Olympic team and another milestone in gymnastics history. She retired from competition soon after, and her accomplished career has largely been obscured by time and the success of women who followed. Another Karolyi gymnast, Betty Okino, and her U.S. teammate Dominique Dawes became the first African American Olympic gymnastics medalists when they earned bronze at the Barcelona Games in 1992, and four years later, Dawes took an individual bronze on floor exercise and helped the U.S. win team gold.

In 2012, almost 30 years after Durham became national champion, Gabby Douglas captured the Olympic all-around title, convincing a 15-year-old gymnast named Simone Biles that she too could be an Olympian.

"As I was coming up, I felt like it was hard to see a successful outcome because you hadn't seen many gymnasts of the same skin color as me," says four-time Olympic gold medalist Biles. "But then Gabby won, and you're like, 'Wow. She looks like me. If she can do it, I can do it.'"

Imagine Durham having that effect three decades earlier.

IN 1983, WITH her family and two busloads of adoring fans from her church looking on in Chicago, a 14-year-old Durham won the U.S. senior all-around title with a dominant performance.

"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?" she says. "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, winning a national title wasn't a grand achievement. It wasn't a moment to pause and take inventory of what she meant to the sport. It was simply an inevitable step on the path to the Olympics for her and her coaches.

Durham was at least as important to the careers of Bela and Martha Karolyi as they were to hers. The couple had defected from Romania in March 1981. Despite the success of their protégée Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics, the two coaches were not exactly embraced by the U.S. gymnastics community. The handful of top U.S. gym owners saw them as rivals. The Karolyis needed to prove they could create winners in a privatized American system very different from the state-backed, centralized program they had presided over in Romania.

They needed a new star, and they found one in Durham, who had started gymnastics under the tutelage of dance specialist Wanda Tomasi-Mohoi in Merrillville, Indiana. On a corkboard-covered wall of the bedroom Durham shared with her sister, she pinned a growing collection of medals and pictures of her favorite gymnasts, including Comaneci. She wanted to be the best and reasoned that Comaneci's coaches could help her in that quest.

After she won the 1981 junior national title, her mother, Calvinita, sought out the Karolyis, who were holding tryouts in their new home of Houston. Thirteen-year-old Dianne packed for a long stay and boarded the plane ready to go to work. "I had no intention of going back to Gary," she says.

Durham's confidence was well-founded. She earned one of six spots on the Karolyis' fledgling Sundance Athletic Club team.

"I knew what I was getting into when I went to the Karolyis," Durham says. "I knew it wasn't going to be a walk in the park or swinging off swings in the playground. I knew it was going to be tough. I knew I would have to prove myself to [Bela]. And they knew that I could be challenged, and they brought out in me things that I didn't even know existed."

She initially lived in the Karolyis' home, then with a host family. Her mother eventually moved to Houston, while her father stayed behind in Indiana with Durham's sister, who was finishing high school. Durham's mother encouraged her to be independent. On one occasion, when Dianne was bothered by something Bela had done at practice, her mother told her to be businesslike in her approach. "I had to write my meeting plans down and give it to Bela," Durham says. "And I brought my little notepad."

Having an elite competitor helped the Karolyis establish themselves and put them on the floor at major meets. When promising younger gymnasts tried out for their club, they could point to their quick success with an American athlete. And when Mary Lou Retton joined their team in early 1983, the Karolyis had two dynamos who could push each other to greater heights in the lead-up to the Los Angeles Games. The plan was for both of them to make it there and compete for the all-around gold.

Durham was the top-ranked gymnast in the country in 1983. At her milestone national championships, she was an athlete in full command. Wearing a striking long-sleeved, V-neck, sky-blue leotard, she capped the competition with a floor routine full of artful dancing and masterful, progressive tumbling.

Bela, who was miked for the broadcast, intercepted Durham just after she passed by the judges' table and took her head between his hands. "It was beautiful today. I am proud of you," he said. She thanked him, still out of breath. He kissed her on her forehead.

Durham took Bela's theatrical style at face value. "I know deep down he has a good heart," she says. "Folks thought it was just for the camera. And that might have been, after me. I do feel that it was genuine -- genuine appreciation."

Durham was the first American woman to successfully execute a full-twisting layout Tsukahara on vault, which won her the national vault title in 1983. She also won the bars and floor titles that year. Durham combined strength and balletic grace in a way few gymnasts in the world did at the time.

"Dianne was unbelievably powerful," Ziert says. "During her floor routine, she did a one-and-a-half-twist, step-out roundoff back handspring to a full-in double back. Few people do that pass today -- and that was without a trampoline floor like they use now. And because she had been trained in [Tomasi-Mohoi's] dance studio, she also presented beautifully in her dance elements and was able to sell her routines."

ANOTHER GYMNAST OF color had climbed to the highest level before Durham. Luci Collins completed an unlikely odyssey when she qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team at age 16. Collins tumbled into gymnastics courtesy of a lucky accident: She fell and split her chin trying to emulate moves she had seen Soviet champion Olga Korbut do on television, and a family doctor suggested she take up the sport.

She was the only child she knew who was involved in gymnastics in her hometown of Inglewood, California, a predominantly Black area of Los Angeles, and had to commute to suburban Torrance and Culver City for instruction. "It wasn't something available in our community or something little girls I grew up with even knew existed," Collins says.

Collins eventually joined the elite program at SCATS in Huntington Beach, one of the top U.S. clubs at the time. Her friends and extended family in Inglewood rallied behind her, raising money to help pay for her training. But because she was a light-skinned teenager of Creole heritage, she felt she had to constantly "prove" her Blackness to her teammates and coaches. In stories, the media didn't identify her as Black.

"My family comes from a place where you have to tell people who you are and what you are, so it was ingrained in me from being a young kid that you don't try to pass for something you're not," she says. "I tried to be open and honest that I am Black and Creole, that I am part of the Black community, I come from Inglewood. I felt like I had to fight people to make them understand who I was, because of the way I looked."

When Collins made the 1980 Olympic team, her groundbreaking achievement wasn't recognized -- in contrast to men's collegiate star Ron Galimore, whose inclusion on the 1980 team generated considerable media attention. "I felt I represented my community, who had supported me financially so we could travel and pay our gym dues," she says. "When there was no mention of my being the first Black gymnast to make the team, I felt defeated." Collins (her married name is Cummings) still remembers one news account that described her as "having a great tan."

As Durham's star rose, Collins felt the Black community finally got the role model she wasn't allowed to be. "She was amazing," Collins says. "I thought it was beautiful to see her truly represent Black gymnasts. And the young Black gymnasts could look up to her. They could see her and relate. That was something I couldn't give them because of how I looked."

That inspiration wasn't limited to younger athletes. When Wendy Hilliard was growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, Soviet émigrés started programs that enabled her and other city kids to progress. Hilliard broke the color barrier in her own discipline of rhythmic gymnastics, in which athletes perform on a floor with apparatus like ribbons and hoops, becoming the first African American to represent the United States in international gymnastics competition.

Hilliard was in Chicago for the 1983 nationals with her rhythmic team, entertaining the crowd during breaks. When Durham looked poised to take the title, Hilliard called her mother and said, "This girl is about to win a national championship and you need to drive from Detroit to witness this." She and her mother watched together as Durham made history.

"It was groundbreaking what [Durham] did," Hilliard says. "And especially now, to see how hard it is for Black Americans in 2020, people will understand how groundbreaking it was back in 1983. In the Black community, your parents tell you this very early on: In [any] situation where you have to be judged or critiqued for your performance, you have to be twice as good."

WHEN DURHAM BEAT Retton to win the McDonald's International Gymnastics Championships in August of 1983, it seemed like a harbinger of what could happen at the Summer Games a year later. The meet was a "test event" held at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus, the venue where the actual Olympic competition would be held.

But injuries sidelined Durham before the world championships later that year. She returned to competition in December, but the weeks of rehab had made her feel out of the loop and out of sorts in the gym -- "thrown away" by the Karolyis, in her words.

"I didn't see how I fit into this puzzle anymore, and I just felt like, well, maybe it's time for me to go somewhere else," she says.

Durham decamped briefly for a gym in Fort Worth in early 1984 but had a subpar performance that spring at nationals, which was won by Retton, now the star of the Karolyi gym. Durham finished seventh while competing with a broken wrist. Bela approached her and told her she was welcome to return.

"Meant a lot to me," she says. "All I wanted, honestly, was not to be overlooked. Everything worked out just great. I was back in the group."

At trials that year, the top four finishers qualified directly for the Olympic team, while the next four qualified for the practice squad, which would compete at a dual meet with Canada to determine the two additional gymnasts and one alternate for Los Angeles.

Durham was sixth after the first day of competition. The next day, she landed short on a vault attempt and injured her ankle. In the confusion that followed, officials and coaches, including Bela Karolyi, milled around on the sideline.

Multiple people who were present differ on who told Durham to scratch from her final event, the uneven bars, with the idea that Karolyi would cite her injury and petition to include her on the training squad. Network commentators mentioned the possibility on live TV.

In the moment, Durham sat with a giant ice bag on her ankle and tears in her eyes, confused and overwhelmed. "If I knew I had a chance, I would've definitely taken it, and I wasn't given that chance," Durham says. "I don't care how hurt I was. Pain lasts for a little bit."

She said that what transpired that day, or afterward when the selection committee met, has never been fully explained to her. But the rules said that only gymnasts who had competed at the 1983 world championships and finished in the top eight at nationals could request to petition onto the team. Durham had fulfilled the second requirement but not the first, since she'd missed worlds due to injury.

"Can you imagine what kind of pain she is in?" Karolyi said at the time. "She has been working 10 years in gymnastics. 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."

Later, Durham realized that she should have pushed through the pain to complete her bars routine, watered down her landing and let the scores play out. But no one presented her with that option that day.

"I believed it would be a discussion and that all of my other accolades would play into this," Durham says. "But it didn't. That was a very hard pill to swallow."

The Karolyis were still outsiders in the U.S. gymnastics establishment in 1984, with no power or allies in the Olympic selection process. The committee had no athlete representation. No one was willing to call out the absurdity of keeping Durham off the practice team, denying the previous year's national champion a chance to heal and build up again before the Games.

"I was depressed," Durham says. "The city of Gary was behind me 100,000 percent, and I felt like I let my family down. Everybody uprooted their lives for me.

"It does take a chunk out of you, when you have literally played by the rules and done the right things and trained hard and did everything that you were supposed to do correctly, to have it end up that way."

Retton went on to win gold in Los Angeles, ushering in a new wave of popularity for women's gymnastics in the United States. Durham went home.

For Hilliard, who has spent more than two decades running a Harlem-based gymnastics foundation, thinking about what Durham's success could have sparked is both futile and painful. When Douglas captured the individual all-around Olympic title in 2012, more young Black gymnasts came to Hilliard's door than her program could handle.

"Here's the one thing that the [Olympic selection] committee didn't know [in 1984]: For Dianne to win the national championship in 1983, she had so much more pressure on her than any other athlete ever has as a Black woman," Hilliard says. "I could have told them she would have gone to L.A. and made it happen.

"Anybody who did gymnastics in that era respected Dianne, not just because she was Black but because she was a fabulous gymnast."

DURHAM, NOW 52, hasn't spent her life dwelling on the what-ifs, and she has never attributed the disappointments in her career solely to racism. But George Floyd's death and the subsequent protests against systemic racism have sparked a conversation in the gymnastics community about race in the sport. USA Gymnastics released a statement promising action after hearing "many stories of overt and subtle racism within gymnastics." Athletes like Biles and former UCLA star Katelyn Ohashi have tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter, and several former NCAA gymnasts accused their college programs of racism.

In June, Durham discussed some of her experiences in a Facebook post. "In my own life and gymnastics career I encountered discrimination and prejudice," she wrote. "It didn't stop me from reaching all of my goals, but it did play a role in preventing me from reaching some of my biggest goals. ... People are now standing up and calling out wrong when they see it. We need to continue to do this. That is the only way that we can make this change permanent."

Durham chose not to watch the '84 Games, although she has seen bits and pieces since. She took a coaching job with the Karolyis in Houston after closing out her competitive career in 1985, working with talents like Phoebe Mills, Kristie Phillips and Kim Zmeskal. Married for 25 years to educator Tom Drahozal, Durham owned a Chicago-area gym for 17 years and is still a coach and national-level judge.

"I am not a woe-is-me-type gal, never will be," she says. "And yes, other folks decided what the outcome of that part of my life was going to be. But it's up to me to finish the story that is still in the making right now."