A Champion Again

By Kendra Kasl Phair

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    The crowd seemed to calm down suddenly as they focused their attention on the gymnastic arena. Everyone seemed to be watching the same girl—the one who had attracted their attention earlier in the balance beam competition. This time she was swinging on the uneven parallel bars.

    The girl was Diane Ellingson, a typical-looking fifteen-year-old gymnast with a slim body, her hair in a blonde ponytail. But the crowd seemed to sense that there was more to her than her good looks.

    Maybe they noticed her because of the confident way she performed her pirouettes during her floor routine. It could have been the spectacular twists and turns she executed when she flipped from the uneven parallel bars. It might have been her effortless leaps over the vault, but above all that, it was probably her genuine love for the crowd. They could feel it when she flashed them that winning smile at the end of a perfect routine.

    Of course, even when her performance wasn’t quite so perfect there was still something about that smile. Even when she slipped and landed flat on her face at the end of a routine while being filmed on national television, she smiled and waved to the crowd until they applauded. In a competition on her eighteenth birthday she told the judges it was her birthday so they would ask the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. “I wasn’t embarrassed,” says Diane. “I would’ve let them sing it twice just for the attention.”

    Even as a child, Diane loved to have an audience. Once when she was nine or ten years old she didn’t come home from school when she was supposed to, so her father went looking for her. He found her in the center of a circle of children, entertaining them with her tumbling tricks just for fun.

    Diane’s sister Marie laughs at the memory of Diane as a child performer. “If you ever see our family photographs, she’s always out in front. She was just always a show-off. Dad would be photographing someone else and Diane would get in the picture somehow.”

    The desire to perform fit perfectly into gymnastics, another of Diane’s lifelong loves. It was hard to convince her parents that gymnastics was a good thing for her, and even then she had to do something more.

    “Our family had seven children and couldn’t afford to pay for Diane to have lessons. She went down to the gymnasium herself and told the coach that she’d do anything for them. So after practice sessions she’d clean the gymnasium—vacuuming mats, cleaning bathrooms, whatever, to pay for her lessons,” says Marie.

    Diane’s love of the spotlight was quickly matched by her gymnastic ability, and the two made a championship combination. She started training when she was fourteen and a half years old, a late start by competitive standards, but within a year she was competing against the best in the country. She was the Junior Olympic National Champion in high school, and in college she led the University of Utah’s women’s gymnastics team to their first national victory.

    After she was no longer eligible for college competition, she decided to go on a national professional tour. Diane knew her gymnastics career was mostly over, but she just wanted to hold on to the thrill of the spotlight and the fun of the sport for as long as she could.

    During training for the tour Diane was practicing a vault she’d done thousands of times. She ran toward the vault just like she had done every other time. She jumped on the springboard like all the other times and flew up and over the vault—just like all the other times. But this time was different. This time she turned her body just a little too far. This time when she landed, she broke her neck. The accident put her in the hospital for almost six months and in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

    That was on December 15, 1981. Diane spent that Christmas and the next five months in the hospital, trying to imagine her life without gymnastics. After so many years of loving the sport, it was difficult for Diane to adjust.

    “I hated being in the hospital, and I felt like I was in prison,” says Diane. For one month of the five she was in the hospital, she was in traction and couldn’t move at all except when the nurses came in and turned her a few centimeters every two hours. Diane had no idea she’d be in the hospital for so long. “In fact, when I was first injured I thought for sure that in a month I’d be back on the tour. I thought, ‘If I have enough faith and believe in God and in myself, I’ll be okay.’ And I just knew it.”

    Recovery wasn’t quite so easy though, and things seemed to get worse. “I was a horrible patient,” says Diane. “In the hospital I was really miserable because I was so restless. I was really impatient with people.” Finally Diane came to a turning point.

    “One day I was in the depths of despair. I just felt like I couldn’t bear it anymore,” Diane says. She asked for a priesthood blessing. She knew the power to heal her was present, “but I only wanted that to happen if it was Heavenly Father’s will. I had this blessing and I felt the greatest sense of peace. It was like I knew that no matter what happened it would be okay. If I didn’t walk away from the hospital there would be a reason for it. I knew that I had always tried my best to live the gospel and do what I was supposed to do, so if anybody was worthy to have that blessing, I was. But from that point on I was a different person. I was totally comforted.”

    Ironically, one of the biggest aids to her recovery was gymnastics. “I don’t know if I could’ve gotten up again if I hadn’t had that training in gymnastics,” she says. “I had a lot of serious injuries when I was a gymnast that I just had to deal with. It was always down, up, down, up in gymnastics and this was just one more down I had to get up from. Gymnastics taught me to get back up so I could be a champion again.”

    On the day she finally realized she would never walk again, Diane made the decision to return to school to work for her degree. She was lying on her bed with all her scrapbooks filled with souvenirs and photos of her performances. Tears dripped down her face and splashed on the scrapbook pages. “I just realized right then that things weren’t going to get any better. As I lay there crying I thought, ‘I can either give up or get on with my life’ and that’s when I decided to go back to school and get my degree.”

    Now Diane teaches a class full of seven-year-olds who are just the right height to look her in the eye. “The kids will do anything for her,” says Marie. “They just love her.”

    Her students aren’t her only fans. Diane also gives fireside talks to teenagers who listen intently as she tells her story. And her message is one of hope and perseverance, without bitterness for what has happened.

    Her personality hasn’t changed at all. Just listen to her speak and you’ll hear the exuberant, happy girl who used to charm arenas full of people. Now her charm is just aimed at another audience. Her voice seems to smile at every person in the room and her own laughter frequently interrupts her stories.

    “I think telling my gymnastics stories and sharing my experiences opens up the communication between us. They soon forget that I’m in a wheelchair. When they do that, the youth can see that I’m just a regular person and we have a lot in common, even though, in a wheelchair, I look a lot different than they do,” Diane says.

    Her main message is one for potential champions: don’t give up, no matter what happens. “When I was a young gymnast I met a girl, an athlete named Nancy Thies. Nancy was a member of the U.S. Olympic team and one of the finest gymnasts in the country. I have never forgotten some very important things that Nancy taught me. I remember the first thing she said was, ‘Don’t be afraid to lose.’ She said, ‘If you fall down and you stay down, you’re a quitter and a loser and you will never win. But if you get back up and you try one more time, it will be your turn to be the champion, so just don’t give up.’” Diane says she made a promise to herself that she would remember that advice and never give up, no matter how many times she fell.

    Once she faced the hardest fall of her life, not giving up was difficult, especially because of her wheelchair. The entire time she was a gymnast, whether she was swinging high above the uneven parallel bars of just doing handstands for fun, her only fear was of being blind or paralyzed. “I had such uneasy feelings about wheelchairs that I would never talk to anybody in a wheelchair or go near a wheelchair. I would avoid people in wheelchairs. I was afraid that I’d end up in a wheelchair if I got too close to one. It was almost like having thought about it so much somehow prepared me for a wheelchair,” she says.

    It was probably Diane’s unconquerable spirit that prepared her more than anything else. It’s a spirit that is evident in both her funny stories and her powerfully quiet testimony about the importance of an eternal perspective and God’s love for each of his children. It’s a spirit that Diane has always had. “I’ve never met anyone, except my father, who has a stronger testimony than she does,” says Marie. “There’s no doubt in her mind that what she’s doing is right and that the Church is true. She has always been a great example.”

    The lights are turned down in the room as she finishes her message, and a slide show featuring Diane, the fun-lover and gymnast, lashes on the screen in time to some fast, contemporary music. When the presentation is over, young people surround her excitedly.

    Diane says, “It makes me feel really good when people tell me they’re going to try harder after they’ve heard my talk. One girl came to me once and told me she’d heard me speak four different times. The first time, she decided not to commit suicide. The second time, she decided that she didn’t have to drop out of school. The third time, she made a goal to become one of the best students in her class, and the last time she was on her way to that goal.”

    Diane just shrugs her shoulders and laughs a little when someone tells her she’s wonderful. She even looks a little embarrassed, which is rare for this experienced performer. “People always think, ‘You’re so amazing, you’re so incredible,’ but I’m not. People will say, ‘If that happened to me I could never handle the situation,’ and the thing I have to say is, ‘Either you handle the situation or you die.’ You have to take whatever life gives you and deal with it, even if you might not want to. You know, if somebody dies in your family, you have to live with it. If you break your neck you have to live with it, but you just learn and that’s what’s so great about time and the healing process. You don’t have to be miraculous.”

    You just have to be as willing as Diane was to get up again, so that someday it will be your turn to be the champion. For Diane, the victory is especially sweet, because she has won back what she thought she’d lost.

    She is a champion again.

    Photography by Philip Shurtleff

    Diane can often be found telling her story to groups of interested teenagers. Her message is one of hope and perseverance, without bitterness for what has happened. “Don’t give up, no matter what happens,” she says.