A Tribute to Dianne Durham-Drahozal

William A Sands, PhD, FACSM

Dianne was an outstanding young lady who graced gymnastics with her determination, talent, and character.  She would have been an outstanding gymnast no matter who coached her.  I was lucky to have had the privilege for a few years.  She was a Class I and Junior Elite gymnast with me – before spring floors, before round fiberglass rails and before the vault table.  She did it all, much like Christa Canary before her (first U.S. full-in) on 2-inch ethafoam over concrete.  No pit at the time and the apparatuses were often hard as rocks.

Her entire family was a godsend.  Her parents were simply astonishing.  Her family would be an excellent example of how parents should behave.  Always comfortable in the background, but also close enough to offer support whenever needed.

Dianne possessed a wisdom far beyond her years.  Although the majority of media attention now is devoted to her race and her championship performance, she did not see herself as a “black” gymnast.  She preferred to let her work speak for her.  

The family drove every day in a van from Gary, Indiana to Northbrook, Illinois (north of Chicago) through Chicago traffic to get to training.  The trip lasted well over two hours.  Dianne did her homework, ate, and slept during the commutes.  Chicago traffic can be terrifying such that I believe her parents deserve awards for bravery.

While at my gym she was trained by Mark Szymanski (associate coach and former college roommate and teammate), Sharon Valley (beam and an outstanding judge), Donna Cozzo (choreographer and former excellent gymnast from Southern Illinois University), and myself.  If memory serves, Dianne and Lynne Lederer qualified to an international competition in South Africa as Junior National Team members.  Mark Szymanski took them there during the horrible period of Apartheid.  Mark took them to see a movie to relax and found out that no blacks were supposed to be allowed in white movie theatres.  Apparently, because Dianne was not South African, she was allowed in.  What could have been a harrowing experience, she took in stride.  

Dianne was always nursing foot issues.  She wore a solid and inflexible orthotic that sometimes reduced her ability to punch and balance, but again – never a complaint and always worked through the problems.  In some of the modern videos of her performances you can see how she lands somewhat gingerly with her feet most commonly in 1st position.  She also tended to wear the ASICS gymnastics shoes which were somewhat of a fashion statement at that time.  For Dianne, the shoes made the orthotics easier to manage.  

Below is a picture from a newspaper article on the gym.  Dianne is doing her stretching and dance movements complex.  Dianne was strong, flexible, dedicated, fearless, and a lovely young lady through it all.

In 1983 I had left club coaching and went to the University of Utah along with Donna Cozzo to work with the Utah team and pursue my doctorate in sport biomechanics and sport physiology.  Shortly before the 1984 Olympic Trials Mrs. Durham and Dianne gave me a call.  They indicated that Dianne had left Bela and Marta for reasons that I don’t know or remember.  They asked me to resume coaching Dianne for the trials.  After some investigation I found I couldn’t provide such coaching within NCAA rules and had to decline.  I would have loved to coach Dianne again but our paths were too far apart.  I understand that she then went to Scott Crouse in Texas and he coached her for a while.  Following Scott, she returned to Bela and Marta but appears to have never regained her earlier prowess.  I believe she would have been an Olympic Champion if not for an inopportune injury and inconsistent training.

Dianne was a class-act of immense proportions.  She was inducted into the Region-V hall of fame, and if memory serves, the Indiana Hall of Fame.  Although we had lost touch for several years, she called me to thank me for her experience training with me after receiving her hall of fame induction.  The call came out of the blue and is one of my most treasured memories.  The other memory came at the Illinois Class I state meet when instead of doing the straddle under-swing half-turn to a wrap to an eagle catch, she performed a straddle toe on and off to handstand (blind change) followed by a grip hop because the rules required it, to the wrap and eagle catch.  This was part of the Class I compulsory.  She blew a lot of minds that day.

The news of Dianne’s passing came last night and felt like a gut-punch that left me breathless and disoriented.  Dianne embodies the very best that gymnastics has to offer.  Her character, compassion, and pure grit will remain a lasting memory for me and many others.  We are all saddened and raw after her passing.

I included a couple videos of her tumbling to show that even at a young age she was an astonishingly talented gymnast.  Note that there was no spring floor, the “bouncy” section at take off was a hand built 4×8 ft single spring section.

Click PLAY or watch it on YouTube.

Click PLAY or watch it on YouTube.

Published by

Rick Mc

Career gymnastics coach who loves the outdoors, and the internet.

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