DAWN RILEY DUVAL: “Black, fearless and free”

DAWN RILEY DUVAL: “Black, fearless and free”

Three decades ago, Dawn Riley Duval flew over hurdles for Coach Gary Winckler’s Fighting Illini women’s track and field squad. Today, Reverend Doctor Duval sprints for social justice as an advocate for Black women’s healing and health. 

Though the seven-time Big Ten champion and eight-time All-American sometimes performed in the shadows of celebrated teammates Celena Mondie Milner, Tonja Buford Bailey, and Tonya Williams, together they dominated the 1990s. The Illini captured the indoor conference title in 1993, both the indoor and outdoor championships in 1995, and an additional indoor crown in ’95. Amazingly, Illinois was the runner-up in each of the championship meets they didn’t win during Duval’s four seasons in Champaign-Urbana.

Winckler discovered Duval in her hometown of Denver, Colorado, where she starred as a sprinter-hurdler for the Colorado Flyers.

“I started running when I was eight years old,” she said. “At eight, I was just gangly and raggedy and had no coordination, but my family was at every meet, just cheering me on and giving me all kind of love. The coaches took me under their wing and helped me to figure out these things called 100-meter hurdles.”

Duval says she “was blessed to be on a track squad with Black women who were track deities”.

“Compared to them, I was mediocre,” she said. “I wasn’t an Olympian and I didn’t win any NCAA titles, but I was eventually able to run the 100 meter hurdles professionally and travel the world, mastering the mind-body-sole synchronicity that is required to sprint over 10 hurdles with precise attention to technique and details. I developed the courage and creativity to fly and sprint, requiring me to take risks. I loved how my body felt … every muscle strong and healthy … so damn powerful. I was impressive. I impressed myself and I liked that. I was joyful and playful and fearless and confident about who I was … Black, fearless and free. This foundation that loved ones at the University of Illinois athletics helped me to cultivate has served me well in life.”

In her remarks at UI’s 2022 Athletics Hall of Fame ceremony, Duval said that arriving on the University of Illinois campus from Denver, a city where the Black population comprises only 10 percent of its 750,000 citizenry, was exhilarating.

“It felt like I landed in Africa,” she said. “Between the…

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