Dawes, Dominique 1976—
Dominique Dawes 1976—
Dominique Dawes has a lifetime of accomplishments to her credit, and she is just entering her twenties. A top-ranked athlete in the demanding sport of gymnastics, Dawes was one of the first black American woman ever to make the United States Olympic gymnastics team. She also holds the honor of being the first black woman to win a national gymnastics championship. Still competing at an age when most gymnasts are compelled to retire, she plans to be a force to be reckoned with at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games as well.
Dawes was the 1994 American national champion in gymnastics, the first woman in 25 years to earn first place in every category of competition at the championship event. Her petite stature and slender figure disguise the fact that she is one of the most muscular, agile, and daring participants in gymnastics today. Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton extolled Dawes in USA Weekend magazine as a “real ‘90s gymnast, explosive and athletic. Nobody does it like her.”
Dawes was born in 1976 in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Far from being pushed into sports by overzealous parents, she had to do some pushing of her own. As an active six-year-old, she jumped on the family furniture and tumbled down the stairs until her mother-fearful for the child’s safety-enrolled her in gymnastics classes at a nearby club in Wheaton, Maryland. The club was run by a former University of Maryland gymnast named Kelli Hill, herself just out of college. Despite her own youth, Hill recognized Dawes’s natural talent immediately and encouraged her parents to give her all the lessons they could afford. “I knew [Dawes] was good,” Hill explained in the Washington Post. “The question was if she was focused enough. You never know about that. Could she do it mentally?”
Women’s gymnastics is a sport with very young competitors, principally because women’s centers of gravity change as they mature. The lean lines of a young girl’s body are more suited to work requiring balance and pinpoint precision. Thus many gymnasts peak at an alarmingly young age-some succumb to the pressure
At a Glance…
Full name Dominique Margaux Dawes; born No vember 20, 1976, in Silver Spring, MD; daughter of Don Arnold and Loretta Florence Dawes Education: Attending University of Maryland with intent to attend Stanfoitl University.
Gymnast, 1987—. Career highlights include gold medal in uneven bars and fourth-place finish m all-around at 1992 US, national championship; fourth place in all-around at 1992 Olympic Trials; bronze team medal in 1992 Olympics; gold medal in vault, silver medal in all-around, uneven bars, and floor exercise, and fourth place in balance beam at 1993 world championships; finished sixth in balance beam at 1994 world championships; gold medal in all-around, vault, balance beam, uneven bars, and floor exercise at 1994 nationals; gold medal in uneven bars and floor exercise at 1995 nationals.
Addresses: Office–c/o USA, Gymnastics, Pan American Plaza, 201 South Capitol Ave., Suite 300, Indianapolis, IN 46225.
and develop eating disorders or other pathological behavior. Others become frustrated and quit. Dawes proved quickly that she had the stamina and determination to reach the top in her sport. “At first I thought [gymnastics] was another play activity,” she admitted in the Wash ington Post. “I didn’t start taking it all seriously until I was about 11. Now gymnastics is my life.”
In the late 1980s coach Hill moved her operation to the Hill’s Gymnastic Training Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Gaithersburg is a 40-minute drive from Silver Spring on one of the busiest arteries leading into the nation’s capital. Nevertheless, Dawes rose each morning at five o’clock to make the trip to Gaithersburg in time for a two-hour morning workout before school. After school ended, she would spend an additional five hours in the gym practicing, almost always under the watchful eye of Kelli Hill.
Gymnastics competitors must be able to perform a number of different specialties: uneven parallel bars, floor exercises, vault, and balance beam. Dawes showed promise in each area. By 1991 she was ranked 13th nationally in compulsories, third in optionals and ninth overall. Her achievement was considered particularly impressive because she was not working with a well-known Olympic coach or at one of the more prestigious Olympic training centers.
Asked her goals by the Washington Post in 1991, the 14-year-old Dawes said she wanted to make the 1992 Olympic Team. And if she failed? ‘TU try for 1996,” she declared. “If I don’t make it then, I’ll switch sports.” Dawes did not have to wait until 1996 to make an Olympic team. She first announced her superiority at a dual 1992 U.S.-Japan meet by scoring a perfect 10 in floor exercise. At the nationals that same year she placed first in the uneven bars and fourth in the all-around, easily qualifying to travel to Barcelona. Her number four ranking in the all-around was doubly impressive in that she finished within one-tenth of a point of winner Kim Zmeskal, the 1991 world champion and a favorite to win a medal at the 1992 Summer Games.
As for Dawes, her performance at the Barcelona Olympics was a slight disappointment. She won a team bronze medal but finished 26th overall. Her inability to win any individual events did not faze the young athlete, however. She looked at Barcelona as a learning experience, a rare opportunity for a high school student to travel, receive worldwide attention, and come home with honors. “Competing at the high level I do has helped me to develop my skills and confidence,” she maintained in the Washington Post. “I try not to get frustrated. Sometimes it’s a little difficult to balance school, gymnastics, and my schedule, but most of the time, it’s easy.”
Dawes’s schedule-balancing became easier when she moved in with her Gaithersburg-based coach so that she would have more time to train. The decision paid off when she finished second in the individual all-around competition at the 1993 national championships. Her accomplishments at that meet also included first place finishes in both the vault and the balance beam-longtime nemesis Shannon Miller won the uneven bars and the floor exercise. In an interview with the Washington Post after the event, Dawes admitted that she felt somewhat inferior to Miller, who had beaten her in the 1993 world championships in Birmingham, England. “I think Shannon works harder than I do,” Dawes said. “When I see her work out, it seems like she’s trying harder than anyone else. If I want to beat her, I have to train harder and longer.”
Dawes returned to her Gaithersburg gym and set herself to the task of surpassing Miller-and any other up-and-coming competitor who might be waiting in the wings. Her hard work paid off in August of 1994 at the national championships held in Nashville, Tennessee. There she took the national all-around championship and first place in all four women’s events: the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercises. No one had accomplished such a feat in 25 years, and the last gymnast to do it had been competing at a time when the field of opponents was much weaker. Dawes became an instant celebrity, sought after for television interviews, magazine profiles, and autographs. “It’s kind of overwhelming,” she said of her sudden success in the Washington Post. “It seems kind of neat for me, that it’s only been done one time before. It’s neat for my own self-esteem. It means I’ve accomplished something very unusual. I just went out there to hit my sets. I never imagined I’d win all the events.”
When talk turned to the 1996 Olympics, however, Dawes demurred. “I don’t want to say anything about the next few years because I want to make sure that if I stay around for Atlanta, my body will be able to hold upboth physically and mentally,” she explained. “You’re concentrating all the time in this sport. I’m really excited right now, but I don’t like to get overexcited about competitions. You know there will be good days and bad days. And I know I still will have some bad days.”
Actually, bad days have been few for the engaging Dawes. Having graduated from Gaithersburg High School in 1994, she accepted an athletic scholarship to Stanford University but deferred enrollment until after the summer of 1996. In the meantime she began taking courses at the University of Maryland. Medicine is one possible field of study she says she would like to pursue. Her training continued at Hill’s Gymnastic Training Center, and her round of appearances included the nationals, the world championships, and exhibitions in Europe, Japan, and America. In the 1995 nationals, she turned in a creditable performance with first-place finishes in the uneven bars and the floor exercise. Her gold medal floor exercise presentation included a daringback- and-forth tumbling pattern that included 11 aerial moves and a nonstop criss-cross of the 40-foot by 40-foot mat.
Dawes has not yet won a world championship, but her performances in world competition have been impressive nonetheless. She is particularly strong in the floor exercise and is the only gymnast who executes the two complete criss-cross tumbling passes as a part of her routine. In two world championships, Dawes was in strong medal contention until she tried-and failed-some extremely difficult vaults in order to enhance her scores. These near-misses and her consistently excellent work in national competition earned her a ranking of fourth in the world as of 1995.
Dominique Dawes stands on the threshold of 20 as the 1996 Summer Games loom. As Christine Brennan notes in the Washington Post, that age “is about 100 in gymnastic years.” Even without sustaining any injuries--and Dawes has had her share-she must face competition with younger athletes such as defending national champion Dominique Moceanu, who is 13. Despite new rules about the age of Olympic competitors, Dawes is still a senior statesman at any world-class event. Her body alone tells the tale: in Barcelona in 1992, she stood four-foot-nine and weighed 81 pounds. In 1995 she had grown to five-foot-one and 106. Dawes is not one to accent the negatives, however. Considering her height and weight gains, she told the Washington Post: “It hasn’t been bad. You’ve got to change some things, like your steps on floor exercise. But it really hasn’t been a problem.”
Most observers agree that Dawes will make the 1996 Olympic team, if not necessarily as its star then at least as a “steadying force for the girls who are coming behind her,” noted Brennan. She has managed to navigate the tricky business of world-caliber gymnastics without falling victim to the troubles that prey upon younger athletes, such as eating disorders and strain-induced injuries. Not that Dawes is a hearty eater-she absolutely avoids desserts, claiming she doesn’t like them.
As for a personal life, Dawes has attempted to keep hers as normal as possible, given the constraints of her practice schedule. She was popular enough at high school to have been named queen of the senior prom, and she has a close relationship with her older sister. When asked by the Washington Post if she felt she had missed anything growing up, Dawes said: “Kids… don’t just go home and watch TV. They usually have a sport to do or a job and they stay at their job pretty late. So I’ve been going through exactly what a lot of teenagers are going through-just at a gym instead of an office.” In USA Weekend she declared that she would much rather work hard than “jut sit in a house and be rich and famous.”
If any aspect of her career puzzles Dawes, it would have to be her level of fame. Shy and retiring by nature, she finds it “weird” that strangers stop her in the street and ask for her autograph. Fellow superstar Mary Lou Retton toldUSA Weekendoi Dawes: “She’s not in it for the exposure. She’s true.” In the same USA Weekend profile, Marguerite Del Giudice notes a similar preoccupation in Dawes not for the glory of the applause but for the sheer thrill of the moves themselves: “When she works out, there’s nothing in her head, nothing she can put into words. And perhaps that is the secret: to linger mindlessly in the powerful place between the thoughts where actions and intentions form.” Dawes credits her parents, who are now separated, for their patience and generosity in allowing her to pursue her goal. “They just let me do it, and if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to,” she toldUSA Weekends “But whenever I wanted to go to the gym, they would take me.” As for her own advice to other Olympic hopefuls, Dawes told Ebony: “Don’t set your goals to be a star; set your goals to be the best that you can be and go from there.”
Ebony, February 1995, p. 134; May 1995, p. 84.
Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1995, p. 1C.
People, December 26, 1994-January 2, 1995.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 17, 1993, p. 3D.
USA Weekend, April 7-9, 1995, pp. 4-7.
Washington Post, June 30, 1991, p. 3B; June 10, 1992, p. 1C; August 31, 1993, p. 1G; April 12, 1994, p. 8D; August 30, 1994, p. IE; August 21, 1995, p. ID.
Washington Post Magazine, November 20, 1994, p. 9.
Dominique Dawes changed U.S. amateur sports forever by becoming the first African American to represent the United States in Olympic gymnastics. Her lifetime achievements are impressive, including a clean sweep at the 1994 U.S. National Championships and three appearances in the Olympic Games (1992, 1996, and 2000). Her reputation has been defined by powerful and risky performances that raise the bar for her competitors. Her famous move of tumbling up and back from one corner of the mat to the other without stopping originated when her coaches asked her to do a full maneuver on the tiny mat in her gym; a fitting signature for a young woman who overcame many obstacles to accomplish things no one else had before.
Dominique Dawes was born in 1976 in Silver Spring, Maryland. From an early age, she displayed the energy required to be a future gymnast. At six years old she had made a hobby of cart wheeling around the house. Her parents were impressed by her talent but also wanted to give her an outlet to express herself away from their more delicate items. "I had a lot of energy around the house, so my parents thought it would be good to put me in a gym," she told CBS Sportsline. They found a trainer with a good reputation in nearby Gaithersburg, Maryland at Hill's Gymnastics. Kelli Hill, the owner, immediately spotted talent. "There are other people with God-given ability, but it takes a very special person to pursue it day after day," Hill told People. Dawes didn't know a thing about the sport of gymnastics but she immediately took to the discipline and hard work. While other children bowed out, she stuck with it.
When Dawes began to compete in local meets at the age of nine, she would write the word "determination" on the mirror in shaving cream. "[At that age] I was amazed she even knew how to spell it," her father told People, "but it worked." She began her amateur career as a gymnast in 1991 at the age of fifteen when she joined the U.S. Senior National team. By the end of the year she was ranked ninth in the nation, making a distinct impression
for a young girl from a small town and an unknown gym.
With a strong performance at the Olympic trials and a blossoming reputation for unusual strength and poise, Dawes became a member of the Olympic team in Barcelona's 1992 games. This is noteworthy because she became the very first African American woman to represent the U.S. Gymnastics Team. When asked about her place in history by Susan Stamberg, Dawes was humble but showed the wisdom of a young woman who had seen racism up close. "I think [my attitude] has to do with having a good outlook on things … And, you know, that's what I constantly try to tell young kids.… You know there's going to be negative things there and they're going to get you down.… But you need to think positive and think that there's a brighter side to everything." Hopes were high for the 1992 team and they managed to take home the bronze medal. But there were even more incredible accomplishments ahead for the young talent.
The following year proved to be as successful when Dawes pulled off a solid performance at the 1993 World Gymnastics Championships in Birmingham, Great Britain. Her two silver medals in the uneven bars and balance beam were a personal best and a first for a black gymnast in a world championship competition. Dawes's reputation was being built on solid and risky performances across all different gymnastic events. USA Gymnastics named Dawes the 1993 Athlete of the Year.
Awesome Dawesome Struts Her Stuff
But it was the 1994 Coca-Cola U.S. National Championships in Nashville where "Awesome Dawesome" earned her nickname. She won first in all the main events. Her clean sweep easily gave her the coveted First All-Around to top it off. The accomplishment was the first of its kind in twenty-five years. Once again, USA Gymnastics named Dawes 1994 Athlete of the Year.
In high school, she practiced seven times a day; two hours before school and five hours after and still managed to maintain an A average. Like any other young woman in her teens, college beckoned. She had her pick of many great schools with her combination of accomplishments and hunger for self-improvement. Stanford offered a scholarship, but she deferred twice due to the strong draw of her favorite sport.
After a wrist injury sidelined her in 1995, Dawes returned with a tremendous effort at the 1996 Coca-Cola U.S. National Championships in Knoxville. Reminiscent of the 1994 Nationals, she took first in a number of events. At twenty, an age when most gymnasts consider retiring, Dawes looked like she was just getting started.
The Magnificent Seven
Dawes excelled at the 1996 Olympic trials and joined six talented young women, penned as the "Magnificent Seven," for the 1996 Olympic Games. The potential that the team displayed made all of the gymnasts household names overnight. Expectations were high for the female team since it was made up of promising talents; unknowns and veterans alike. The Magnificent Seven delivered. As a team they won the gold medal for the U.S. while Dawes, with one stumble in the floor exercise, fought back from disappointment to grab the bronze. She cried as she left the mat, which many took to mean she was disappointed that she didn't win the gold.
Retiring to College
Dawes retired from amateur gymnastics at the end of 1996 and found a number of outlets for her talents. She appeared in the Broadway production of Grease and also danced for a Prince video. She attended college at University of Maryland where she considered a career in medicine as well as law enforcement. But competitive gymnastics beckoned. Only a few months before the 2000 Olympic trials she began to train for a third appearance in the Games. The comeback was primarily due to a discomfort with life outside the sport. "It was very boring having a non-gymnastics life," she told Paula Parrish of the Gazette. "I would wake up and I wouldn't be nervous and I didn't have to go and do anything. I just kind of made up my schedule as I went along." She might have woken up nervous on the morning of the 2000 trials, but she didn't show it. Dawes stunned everyone with a seventh place finish, proving her veteran ability to stay calm under pressure.
|1976||Born November 20, Silver Spring, Maryland|
|1982||Begins training at Hill's Gymnastics|
|1991||Begins amateur career—U.S. Senior National team|
|1992||Becomes first African American woman to represent the U.S. gymnastics team|
|1992||Appears on the cover of Wheaties cereal boxes|
|1993||Wins two Silvers—World Gymnastics Championships|
|1994||Sweeps the Nationals|
|1995||Sits out World Championship in Sabae, Japan due to a stress fracture in her right wrist|
|1996||Places First in Vault, Balance Beam, Uneven Bars and Floor Exercise at the Nationals|
|1996||Becomes the first African American to win a medal for the U.S. gymnastics team; Bronze for Floor Exercise at the Olympics in Atlanta. Helps team win Gold|
|1996||Retires from amateur sports|
|2000||Comes out of retirement to train for 2000 Olympics. Qualifies after only four months|
|2000||Women's gymnastics team places fourth|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1988||U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Houston; tied 17th All Around (AA)|
|1989||American Classic, Oakland; 4th-AA, 2nd-Vault (V), 3rd-Uneven Bars (UB), 6th-Floor Exercise (FX), 9th-Balance Beam (BB)|
|1990||U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Denver; 3rd-AA (junior division)|
|1991||U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Cincinnati; tied 1st-FX|
|1992||Olympic Games, Barcelona, ESP; 3rd-Team, 26th-AA|
|1993||Coca-Cola National Championships, Salt Lake City; 2nd-AA, 1st-V & BB, 2nd-FX, 3rd-UB|
|1994||American Classic/World Championships Trials, Orlando; 1st-AA|
|1995||Coca-Cola National Championships, New Orleans; 4th-AA, 1st-UB & FX|
|1996||U.S. Olympic Trials-Gymnastics, Boston; 1st-AA|
|1996||Olympic Games, Atlanta; 1st-Team, tied 17th-AA, 3rd-FX|
|1998||American Classic, Orlando; 8th-AA, tied 1st-V|
|2000||Olympic Games, Sydney; 4th-Team|
Her climb back to the top was not without controversy. The Selection Committee, which decides who will attend the Olympics, changed an old policy and based their decisions on a gymnast's specific abilities, instead of overall performance. However, they allotted two spots for strong performers. Considering this criterion and her stunning performance in the trials, Dawes was chosen to go to her third Olympics; even though she was picked over Vanessa Atler, who finished one spot ahead in the trials. The controversy that followed could have been huge, but Atler exited gracefully. "I wasn't having fun," she told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "When my name wasn't called, I almost had a sense of relief because deep down, I knew I shouldn't be going."
Time to Move On
Dawes's performance at the 2000 games was disappointing. The U.S. team struggled to avoid being eliminated in the early rounds. Eventually, they ended up in fourth place and Dawes, the sentimental favorite to win gold, went home empty-handed. But she insists she's been made stronger by this and finds comfort in her curiosity, her optimism, and her religious faith.
Many consider Dawes a primary example of the new generation of athlete. She exemplified the surge of powerful and innovative sports figures who proliferated in the 1990s. Her consistently powerful performances through some of the highest drama in recent sports memory, endeared her to millions of Americans and her fellow competitors. The fact that she broke down a stubborn wall for African American gymnasts adds to her already impressive legacy.
Where Is She Now?
Now retired, Dawes has stayed very involved in both gymnastics and inspirational speaking. She completed a stint with Washington D.C.'s local CBS affiliate where she profiled exceptional citizens. She was also a commentator for TNT at the Goodwill Games.
But Dawes' focus after retiring has been primarily on self-esteem issues. Her experiences on the road and in competition made Dawes acutely aware of the pressures girls go through. "Dig deep inside and celebrate yourself," she told Teenwire.com. "Find out who you are as a person and what's good about you. Both negative and positive attitudes are contagious; make sure to surround yourself with positive ones." She's been an official speaker for the Girl Scouts, speaking at events with a consistent message that success comes from respecting yourself first.
On the gymnastics front, Dawes was recently named Co-chair of The 2003 Visa American Cup, the first step on the road to the 2003 World Championships.
Address: Dominique Dawes, USA Gymnastics, Pan American Plaza, Suite 300, 201 S. Capitol Avenue, Indianapolis, IN 46225.
"Cincinnati's White makes Olympic team." Cincinnati Enquirer (August 21, 2000).
"Gym Dandy." People (November 14, 1994): 64.
Parrish, Paula. "Dawes earns one more shot at the Gold." Gazette (September 10, 2000).
Swift, E.M. "Flips and Flops." Sports Illustrated (July 6, 1996): 34.
"Dominique Dawes." CBS Sportsline. http://cbs.sportsline.com/u/gymnastics/0597cbs/dawes.htm.
"Dominique Dawes." USA Gymnastics Official Biography. http://www.usa-gymnastics.org/athletes/bios/d/ddawes.html
Stamberg, Susan. "Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes talks about her experiences in the last three Olympic Games." NPR. http://cbs.sportsline.com/u/gymnastics/0597cbs/dawes.htm.
"Teenwire.com Talks with Dominique Dawes." Teenwire.com. http://www.teenwire.com/index.asp? taStrona=http://www.teenwire.com/takingac/articles/ta_20021029p065_self-esteem.asp
Sketch by Andrew Zackheim