May 2, 2022
Episode 4: The Dynamic Story of Dominique Dawes
Everyone remembers Dominique Dawes’ incredible, boundless energy, her inspirational tumbling, and her iconic bangs—but most people don’t remember much about her personal story and accomplishments beyond those things.
Dawes captured people’s hearts and attention in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where she was part of the Magnificent Seven and became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in Olympic gymnastics. She helped young women interested in gymnastics understand what it looks like to excel and is frozen in this moment in time in many people’s memories. But what is her legacy outside of that one particular moment? There is so much more to say about her story.
This episode takes a fascinating look at Dawes’ career—the trials and joys of winning gold, of being the first in some arenas and almost being the first in others, and the burden of leadership that falls on you when you retire at 24. This episode also goes on a deep dive into Dominique’s life after 1996, the reasons why Dawes opened her own gym after the Larry Nassar trial—and why that gym is purposefully not affiliated with USAG.
In this episode, we show you all that you don’t know about Dawes’ legacy and how being a Black elite gymnast at a very specific time created the dynamic adult she is today. Listen to this week’s episode to hear more from Dawes, her teammates like Dominque Moceanu, her coach Kelli Hill, and many others.
The Story of Dominique Dawes
Dawes started in gymnastics in 1982 when she was six. In 1992 at the age of 16, Dawes earned the nickname, “Awesome Dawesome,” with her back-to-back tumbling passes in her floor routine. People said she “defied gravity with a smile” and looked like she was having fun, but the reality is she wasn’t.
As we discussed in last week’s episode on Betty Okino, gymnastics culture during this time was full of brutal training routines, disordered eating, and all kinds of abuse. The pressure to be a champion and pursue perfectionism was inescapable, and Dawes later reflected that she was nervous and in tears every day. From such a young age, she was groomed to believe that she was never good enough, even when she was winning. This caused her to struggle with self-esteem for many years, despite her apparent success in the world’s eyes.
Similar to Okino, Dawes and her teammates, like Noceanu, felt that they had no voice and no control over their own lives. They couldn’t speak up against their coaches because they’re such powerful decision-makers controlling who goes to the Olympics and who doesn’t. Furthermore, USA Gymnastics refused to take responsibility for any wrongdoings, and would blame the parents or the gymnasts if anything went wrong.
Today, as a 43-year-old mother of four, Dawes is seizing the opportunity to change the culture of the sport. Having had some time and space to grow up and reflect, Dawes is coming to terms with the negative effects her childhood in gymnastics had on her. She has opened recreational gyms in Maryland to give kids interested in gymnastics access to the sport without the pressures she faced. Her gyms are intentionally not registered with USAG. “Gymnastics isn’t the problem. The institution is the problem,” she says. Her gyms are not focused on building Olympic champions, but instead are focused on helping young gymnasts find their own inner voices.
Learn more about Dominique’s story and what was going on behind the scenes in USA Gymnastics in the 1990s in this week’s podcast episode.
Stay Tuned for Weekly Episodes of American Prodigies
Each week, American Prodigies tells gymnasts’ stories, unraveling what it means to be a Black girl navigating overwhelmingly white spaces. Their stories consider the burden of visibility, the weight of expectation, the anguish of injury, and the joy of winning.
In a sport that divided and conquered and isolated athletes from each other for so long, there’s power in bringing these voices together. With interviews from gymnasts, coaches, judges, and experts—and sonically rich journeys into the past—American Prodigies will give long-time gymnastics fans new insights and grab the attention of those who normally only tune in every four years.
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