COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes still maintains her focus and dedication to what’s important in life — including laughter.
During her performances, Dawes says she rarely smiled. But today, as a wife, mother of four young children and owner of a gymnastics academy, she encourages the girls she trains to express emotions that would not have been acceptable during her career.
It’s part of a shift in the cutthroat culture of American gymnastics that was brought to the fore at the Tokyo Olympics by the decision of Simone Biles — considered the “Greatest of All Time” in the sport — to pull out of the team event final due to mental exhaustion.
“She needs to do what is best for Simone,” Dawes told Zenger in an interview.
“At the end of the day she is the one who has to live her life. Just like [Japanese world tennis No. 1] Naomi Osaka, who made the decision to not partake in a press conference because she was concerned about her mental health, athletes need to be able to say no,” she said.
“If they feel that it’s unhealthy for them, they need to be able to step away.”
Dawes was a member of the “Magnificent Seven” team that won gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. She was also the first black person — male or female — of any nationality to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics, and the first African American to win an individual Olympic medal in the floor exercise.
A lot has changed since then, she said, with her Olympic successors like Biles more empowered to stand up for their own interests.
“When I think about the Olympic Games, it brings me back to the level of sacrifice and commitment and what it took to earn a spot on that Olympic stage,” Dawes said. “We did what was told of us. Back in the ’90s, gymnasts were literally trained to be to robots.”
“It is very much a breath of fresh air to be a 44-year-old mom and to listen to my inner voice now.”
A different focus
Dawes said her views on gymnastics changed after she became a mother.
“I think it is important for our kids to enjoy their childhood,” said Dawes, who started in gymnastics when she was 6 years old.
In the 2020 documentary “Art of the Athlete,” Dawes talks about moving away from her parents and siblings when she was 10 to pursue her dream of being a world-class champion. While she later would be nicknamed “Awesome Dawesome,” her journey was not easy.
“Everything that came out in 2016 regarding [former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and convicted sex offender] Larry Nassar … it was the culture that allowed that to go on,” Dawes said. “He abused so many young girls, and now we are shining a light on a culture that has some horrible, physical and psychological abuse.
“I want to make sure that we are focusing on building and not tearing kids down, building them up to be champions in life.”
Dawes said she doesn’t have a competitive team at the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics and Ninja Academy in Clarksburg, Maryland, and that is by choice.
Her academy “is all about creating a healthy environment and being honest about the journey that I had, back in my career. While I love sports, it can be a very grueling environment. What I am offering is quite different. I want people to have a healthy introduction to the sport of gymnastics. It is not about building champions. It is more about happy and healthy kids growing up to be healthy adults.
“As a mom of four, I see life differently,” she said. “Everyone has different strengths and abilities. I see every kid there as gifted and talented. That’s how my facilities run, as opposed to a highly competitive facility.
“It can be a very grueling environment, but I want people to have a healthy place. We are planting positive seeds, and it is really about building the self-esteem and the emotional psychology of smiling and laughing and caring about [children] as people.”
Changing the “spirit of gymnastics”
“We are really striving to change the spirit of gymnastics. It was the culture that allowed the abuse of so many young girls,” she said.
Dawes, who spoke with Zenger before Team USA began their performances in Tokyo on Sunday, said she and her family would be watching.
“I feel like everyone in the globe is going to be watching, being what we have been through over the last year and a half,” she said. “We are cheering for them.”
Dawes married Jeff Thompson, a teacher in Potomac, Maryland, in 2013, and today they are parents of a 7-year-old, a 5-year-old and 3-year-old twins.
When she was asked what name she goes by, she said: “It is still Dawes. But my husband gets on me to change it to Dominique Thompson.”
Her husband, a former professional basketball player, said of Dawes: “She is amazing. I want to elevate her as a mother, wife and businesswoman.
“I see the business as a calling. I look at her all the time, and as a man, I have to put the ego aside because she is so well-loved, and let her be the mother and the wife. It is often a complicated road to navigate,” he said.
Milton Kent, a professor at Morgan State University, said Dawes was clearly a trailblazer for modern athletes because at the time she was competing, the Eastern Europeans set the standards in gymnastics and the Americans were not serious contenders.
Kent said Biles and other present-day Olympic gymnasts owe much to Dawes. But now Dawes wants to chart a new course for her students.
“In terms of some parents, they don’t really [understand] the journey and the level of sacrifice it takes for a young child,” she said.
“I want to be part of the change by creating a healthy environment. I see life different now that I am a mother of four kids. I now see things in terms of my children and as a protective parent. … I am going to be part of the parents who really care.”
Edited by Judith Isacoff and Fern Siegel
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