A Champion Again

A tragic gymnastics accident couldn’t keep Diane Ellingson down for long.

The crowd seemed to calm down suddenly and every person stopped talking as if on cue. They focused their attention on the floor because they recognized that same girl—the one they had noticed earlier in the balance beam competition. This time she was swinging in ever higher circles around the uneven parallel bars, but she could have been just turning somersaults and they still would have noticed.

The girl on the floor was Diane Ellingson, a typical-looking gymnast with a tiny frame and a blonde ponytail. But her looks were the only thing typical about her, and the crowd could always sense that.

Maybe they noticed her because of the saucy way she held 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 one-of-a-kind 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 infectious smile. Even when she landed in a belly flop on national television after a routine, she smiled and waved to the crowd until they applauded. In a meet on her 18th 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.”

Her love of the audience was a carryover from childhood. Once when she was nine or ten 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, not for the glory, just for fun.

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

That desire to perform fit perfectly into gymnastics, another of Diane’s lifelong loves. It was tough 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 kids and couldn’t afford to pay for Diane to have lessons. She went down to the gym herself and told the coach that she’d do anything for them. So after workouts she’d clean the gym—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 14 1/2, 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 collegiate title.

After her eligibility for college competition was up, she decided to go on a national professional tour. It was a tour that involved Kurt Thomas and other well-known gymnasts, and Diane would get paid $5,000 just to go. She says she 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 into the air—just like all the other times. This time was different though. This time she rotated just a little too much. This time when she landed, she broke her neck. The accident put her in the hospital for almost half a year 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 comprehend a 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 inches 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 and back in shape. 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 stir-crazy. I was really impatient with people.” Finally Diane came to a turning point.

“Near the end of my traction 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 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 chronic 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 to a big degree made me so I could be a champion again.”

Being a champion is what Diane is all about. Marie says, “Her attitude’s always been, ‘If you want it, go for it.’ She decided when she was young that she would never give up.” And since Diane wanted to teach before her accident, she couldn’t just give that up, no matter what the odds.

Diane made the decision to return to school to finish her degree on the day she finally realized she would never walk again. She was lying on her bed amid 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 she teaches a class full of third graders 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, captivated, 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, although she doesn’t wear her hair in a ponytail anymore. Just listen to her speak and you’ll see 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 ready laugh frequently interrupts her stories.

“I think telling my gymnastics stories and sharing my experiences kind of breaks the wheelchair barrier. The kids can see that I’m just a regular person and we have a lot in common, even though 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 whole time she was in gymnastics, whether she was swinging high above the uneven parallel bars or just doing handstands for fun, she was only afraid of being blind or paralyzed. “I was so paranoid of wheelchairs that I would never talk to anybody in a wheelchair or go near a wheelchair. In stores, if somebody in a wheelchair was down an aisle, I’d never go down that aisle, no way. I was paranoid that I’d end up in one if I got too close. It was almost like having thought about it so much kind of prepared me,” she says.

It was probably Diane’s indomitable spirit that prepared her more than anything else. It’s a spirit that comes through 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 dim when she finishes her message, and a slide show featuring Diane, the ham and gymnast, flashes on the screen in time to some upbeat music. When it’s over, young people swarm around her, enveloping her tiny frame and wheelchair with their excitement.

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 flunk out of school. The third time, she made a goal to make the honor roll, and the last time she was on her way to that goal.” Another champion in the making, thanks to Diane.

Diane just shrugs 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 cope with it,’ and the thing I have to say is, ‘Either you cope 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.

[photos] Photography by Philip Shurtleff

[illustrations] Lettering by James Fedor