The First Black U.S. Elite Gymnasts

(Featured Photo: Dianne Durham in 2012; photo credit – Northwest Indiana Times)

When it comes to Black gymnasts, most casual gymnastics fans know the names Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas. Some may recognize the name Dominique Dawes, possibly even Betty Okino and Jair Lynch as well.

But even a good number of hard-core gymnastics fans may not know the ones that paved the way for the gymnasts named above and all the other Black U.S. gymnasts thru the years. Gymnasts like Ron Galimore, Luci Collins, Charles Lakes, Dianne Durham, and Wendy Hilliard.

The first Black man to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team was Ron Galimore in 1980. Unfortunately he, like the rest of the 1980 U.S. Olympians, were unable to compete because of the government boycott of the Moscow Games. An especially bitter pill for Ron who was considered a medal threat on vault.

Ron found a high level of success nationally over the duration of his career winning 4 vault event national titles and 3 floor event national titles. He also has the distinction of scoring the first 10.0 in NCAA gymnastics history on vault during NCAA Nationals competition while attending LSU (he later completed college at Iowa State).

Today, Ron is still very involved with gymnastics as the chief operating officer of USA Gymnastics. He was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2016. Fun fact: Ron is the son of FAMU football legend Willie Galimore (Willie also played in the NFL for 7 seasons).

The first Black woman to make an Olympic team was Luci Collins. Unfortunately, she too suffered the same fate as Ron. Her Olympic moment would never come to pass as a consequence of the 1980 Olympic boycott. Luci intended to stick around and attempt to make the Olympics in 1984, but that desire was dashed by injury in 1982.

An interesting aside is Luci, who is Creole, fought colorism for her place in history. When it came to press recognition for potentially being the first Black U.S. Olympian, “there was a lot of attention on Ron but not a mention of me as African-American,” she later recounted. “I was devastated by the non-coverage because of the way it affected the little community (Inglewood, California) that strongly supported me…There was a large amount of disappointment over that in my local community, and it was hurtful. I definitely identified as African-American, but there were times I felt I wasn’t a good enough representation.”

After her Olympic dream ended, Luci completed her studies at the University of Southern California. Now, Luci has two daughters and lives in El Segundo, California.

Charles Lakes was the first Black U.S. gymnast to actually compete at an Olympics in 1988. During his career, Charles also went to 2 World Championships and was the floor National champion in 1988.

Note: some contend that James “Kanati” Allen was actually the first Black U.S. Olympic gymnast in 1968.  Kanati, who had mixed race parents who were both part Black, was commonly referred to as Cherokee Indian. However, Kanati’s brother Ramon has said, “in my opinion, if anyone subsequent to Kanati said they were the first Black Olympic gymnast they would be in error because Kanati was Black.” Kanati passed away in 2011.

Dianne Durham is quite possibly the best U.S. gymnast you haven’t heard of. A Gary, Indiana native, Dianne was the first Black National all-around champion back in 1983. In fact, she won 4 titles that year. In addition to the all-around, Dianne won the vault, beam and floor National titles too. She was the first Elite gymnast the legendary Bela and Martha Karolyi coached after immigrating to the U.S. from Romania.

Dianne appeared to be on her way to Olympic stardom in 1984 when she was derailed by injury and procedural miscommunication.

Following Nationals in 1983, Dianne became injured and didn’t compete at World Championships later that year. During Olympic Trials in 1984, Dianne suffered another injury on vault and withdrew from the rest of the competition. Because she hadn’t competed at Worlds the previous year, Dianne couldn’t petition her way onto the Olympic team according to the guidelines at that time.

There are some to this day that call the decision sketchy as it’s not clear whether or not Dianne knew at the time she couldn’t be petitioned onto the team if she withdrew. Whatever the case, she was forced to the sideline while her club teammate, Mary Lou Retton, stole the show in Los Angeles.

After her Olympic disappointment, Dianne performed in gymnastics exhibitions, did some coaching, and even ventured to Japan for a short run as a professional dancer. Today, Dianne stays involved in gymnastics as a National Level judge and as founder of Skyline Gymnastics in Chicago. She also does motivational speaking.

All of the gymnasts above did artistic gymnastics. Wendy Hilliard was a (record setting) 9-time National team member in the discipline of rhythmic gymnastics.

Wendy represented the U.S. at 3 World Championships in 1979, 1981 and 1983. After retiring from competition, she studied broadcasting and Russian language in college. While she didn’t go to the Olympics as a gymnast herself, she made it in 1996 as coach to Aliane Baquerot Wilson. Wendy was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2008.

Currently, Wendy runs the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, which provides low-cost and free gymnastics classes for those in and around Harlem and her native Detroit, while also working as a sports consultant in the NYC area. She’s also kept busy over the years by sportscasting and performing on Broadway. In addition, Wendy served as President of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1995-1996, the first Black woman to serve as the organization’s leader.

Credit: Wendy Hilliard Foundation Instagram

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