The amazing acrobatic capabilities of a gymnast are something that is marveled at by many around the world including myself. I remember being a young girl watching the summer Olympics and seeing tiny muscular young ladies defy gravity with grace and ease. But one thing I noticed is that there weren’t a lot of women of color, but the ones that I did see were dominating the scene. Here’s a look at some of the top history-making black women that made their mark in the world of gymnastics.
Believe it or not, it was 1980 before the first black woman qualified with enough points to make the United States Gymnastics Olympic team. A young girl from California named Luci Collins was the first black elite gymnast out of the US. At the young age of 16. Excited and ready to compete, the rug was swept out from Collins Olympic debut and all others on the American teams after the government decided to boycott the Moscow Games not allowing them to compete. Optimistic Collins hoped to make the team again in two years but was unable to compete due to an injury that ended her career. “It was not until my career was sidelined… two years later that the full impact of the boycott really hit me. My one chance to compete on the Olympic stage had passed me by,” she said. “This particular disappointment still hurts a little deeper because it was not of my choice or actions that this happened. And I do still wonder what if?” (source). It wasn’t until 2010 where Collins was honored along with others from the 1980 Olympic Team for their accomplishments despite not being allowed to compete.
It wasn’t long before the next black girl started to make noise in the world of gymnastics. In 1981 Dianne Durham became a major competitor, winning the junior elite championship and going on to keep her title in 1982. Durham was the first black woman to win the all-around title of USA Gymnastics National Championships in 1983. Durham’s career took a slight pause after a knee injury, but once recuperated she went on to win more medals but suddenly withdrew from the 1984 US Olympic Team Competition. Durham went on to be a judge and coach another gymnast.
In the ’90s many young black women made history in gymnastics. Donne Foster was the first elite gymnast in history from Alabama at the age of 13. She was a member of Alabama’s 1991 NCAA Gymnastic Championship Team.
Betty Okino started collecting metals in 1990 at the US National Championship bringing home gold in balance beam and silver in the all-around category. Okino was the first black woman of any to win multiple World Championship medals in 1991 with two silvers and one bronze. She also brought home the team bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
If you watched any gymnastics in the mid to late nineties, you’ve heard the name Dominique Dawes, known to many as ‘Awesome Dawesome’. In 1990 she placed 3rd in the all-around junior division at the 1990 U.S. National Championships but it was at the 1992 USA vs Japan meet where Dawes wowed the world with her tumbling skills earning a perfect 10 and a standing ovation. Dawes metaled a total of four times at the 1992,1996, and 2000 Olympics breaking the glass ceiling becoming the first black person to win an individual Olympic medal and the first to win gold in the Olympics for gymnastics. She earned four World Championship medals and nineteen National Championship medals.
Gabrielle Douglas started training at the age of six, but it wouldn’t be until the mid-2000’s when she would start medaling and moving up in the rankings. In 2010 Douglas brought home a gold in the uneven bars category at the Pan American Championships along with a gold team medal. Followed by a gold team medal at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo. The following year Douglas competed in the Pacific Rim Championships bringing home another gold for uneven bars and team gold in 2012. 2012 was a busy year as she followed up with the Olympic games in London bringing home gold for the team and all-around with ‘The Fierce Five’. Douglas was also honored by the Associated Press as ‘Female Athlete of the Year’ staking her claim as the fourth gymnast to receive this prestigious honor. Douglas also made the cover of Sports Illustrated becoming the first gymnast to be featured on the cover of the magazine. Time Magazine also featured her on the cover the summer of 2012 and she even had her own Wheaties box! 2015 Douglas added to her collection of medals at the World Championships in Glasgow, this time a silver all-around and gold for the team. Still going strong and competing in 2016 Douglas brought home gold in the FIG World Cup all-around and gold at the Olympic Games for the team in Rio De Janerio. But it wasn’t an easy road to victory, in 2017 Douglas went public sharing her story of being sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar as a teenager.
We can’t talk about all this black girl magic in the gym and not talk about Simone Biles. Biles holds the record for the most decorated American gymnast with a total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. Her amazing record includes two gold (2015,2019) and one silver (2013) from the FIG World Cup, two gold (2016) from the Pacific Rim Championships. Three bronze (2013, 2015, 2018), three silver (2013, 2014, 2018), and nineteen gold (2013, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019) at the World Championships. Biles also added four gold (2016) and one bronze (2016) Olympic medals to her collection setting the record for the most gold medals in women’s gymnastics at a single Olympic Games. In 2012, Biles was chosen by Team USA to be a flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. She was the first American female gymnast to do so.
She’s broken all kinds of records and was chosen to represent the US at the Tokyo World Cup in April. But her appearance was canceled by the USA Gymnastics due to COIVD-19, the event was soon canceled as well. Over the span of her career, Biles has received many awards and accolades. In 2015 Team USA named her Olympic Athlete of the Year, she was the fourth gymnast to earn this award. In 2016 Time Magazine named her Person of the Year, she won an ESPY Award (2017), a Teen Choice Award (2017), she was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential person in the world (2018), People’s Choice Award for the game changer of 2019 along with many other awards.