Known to millions as the ‘Awesome Dawesome’, Dominique Dawes would go on to be- come an all-around National gymnastics champion, a three-time Olympian, and the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics. Since retiring twelve years ago, she has continued to inspire millions through her work as co- chair for the Presidents Council of Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, a sought after motiva-tional speaker, and now through “Heart of a Champion, The Dominique Dawes Story” – a new children’s book penned by Kim Washburn, which chronicles her rise to eminence. But for all her accomplishments it would be life beyond the roar of the crowd, that would significantly shape her very core…. Here we join Monique Akonor in a candid talk with the Olympic star.
Link2Us: You are one of the most successful athletes of all time – with many accolades to prove so. Nonetheless, in the book, you expressed that you also dealt with painful feelings of unworthiness and that you struggled with self-esteem issues. Could you please elaborate?
Domique Dawes: I do address that, because I understand that this is a huge issue not only
for young girls; but also for young boys and some adults too. There are lots of people carrying wounded children inside of them. Oftentimes when we react to situations, it’s not the current situation that we are experiencing that we are responding to but some- thing from our past that we never healed from. So I thought it was important to address self-esteem, because I want people to comprehend that winning gold medals or getting recognize or getting titles and applause from the world. . . Will not help them love them- selves. That has to come from within. . . It comes from knowing yourself, accepting yourself and voicing your uniqueness. You also have to make wise decisions about the company that you surround yourself with. By surrounding yourself with loving compassionate, and kind people. That’s a lesson that I learned as an adult – and only then, did I become more healed and more whole.
Link2Us: You have spoken of Mrs. Norman often. How her words resonated and in- spired you; and how she showed you compassion. Can you talk a little about her and what her words meant to you?
DD: It was an encounter in 1994 when I was training for the National Championship. I was going through a very hard time [in practice and training]. I was dealing with a lot of pressure – physically and emotionally. My parents were going through a divorce – so there was a great deal of dysfunction and brokenness at home and it started to show in my gymnastic training. Of course, it affected my self-esteem greatly, as well. I remember going out in the waiting area – and Mrs. Norman, just said these loving, kind words . . . remanding me that I was appreciated, not because of my accomplishments or the impact that I was making for the sport of gymnastics – but because of my character and my heart. It was something that I truly needed to hear at that time. As a gymnast, you become a perfectionist and a people-pleaser. Today, when I speak to people, I talk about the easiest ways to fail in life.
1.) Comparing yourself to others, and
2.) Trying to please people.
There is always going to be someone who is more accomplished than you; that has more than you – that works harder than you, that is smarter. You name it . . . there is always going to be someone. If you are constantly comparing yourself to others – you’re always going to feel less than. You’re not going to be able to please everyone. If you’re striving to please everyone – you are not going to be able to keep one faith. As a young gymnastic, I always struggled with that. So hearing her words really helped me put things into pro- spective. There are times when I truly believe that God sends someone too you, to say the right words. I remembered that experience because it meant so much to me.
Link2Us: You have previously expressed that your faith grew after you retired from the sport of gymnastics. Can you elaborate on that; and how your faith in general has helped you find direction through the years?
DD: It is amazing how when times are tough and you are in the darkest place – that all of a sudden . . . you reach out to Christ even more. I know that I am not the only one. In the sport of gymnastics, I was always known as Dominique Dawes, the gymnast; or Dominique Dawes the Olympian. So, when I had to (and I really had to) at 23 – to walk away from the sport. I was done! Physically, emotionally . . . I just needed to move on. When that door closed . . . I felt lost. I did not feel like I had an identity anymore. I had to take some time to figure out who I really was. And, it wasn’t until I got down on my knees and cried out to the Lord to find out my next step – to find out what else he had blessed me with – and if I had another passion in this world, that was I able to embrace that I was not just a gymnast. . . But that I was his child, and he did have another path for me. It took some- times! I was working and doing things . . . but, I prayed out. After a good year or two, the Lord revealed to me my work in public speaking, as my calling. I would have never envisioned myself as a public speaker. I didn’t care to speak to people . . . I was not social in school. I was made fun of, because of my voice – so I really never spoke up in class. When I was first asked to do a speaking engagement (at age19, at the 1996 Olympics) – I was terrified! But, I did it . . . I wasn’t great; but I enjoyed sharing my story. It wasn’t until 2002, after walking away from the sport, that I embraced the work that the Lord had placed me in. I recognized that it wasn’t about me; but about leaving a lasting impression in other people lives.
Link2Us: Can you speak a little about your appointment to the President’s Council of Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition? How did you become involved?
DD: Yes. I am the co-chair of the President’s Council of Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. It has been a great role, focusing on something that I am passionate about. I believe in the importance of fitness, sports, and nutrition – this has been pretty much my whole child- hood. I had spoken to a lot of people that informed me that the President was putting together a council of athletics, entertainers, and pediatricians. So, when I got the call from the White House, I wasn’t surprised; but I was surprised that the President wanted me to co-chair. I embraced the opportunity; I knew that I could make a difference. It’s been great being an Ambassador – speaking to kids (and adults) on this critical issue.
People are not knowledgeable when it comes to proper nutrition; nor physical activity. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has been a highlight for me, as well. She is someone, who doesn’t just talk the talk – she walks the walk. She is a daily example of how we all should be.
Link2Us: You have also touched on Fitness Awareness for children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. Is Autism Fitness Awareness and Autism Speaks something you plan to also campaign for?
I believe in and support Autism Speaks. Autism is a disability that has touched me per- sonally – with my younger brother, Don. When something comes up (an event) – it is a cause that I do show support for. When I first became the co-chair of the Presidents Council . . . I addressed the issues of physical activity for those with special needs. The council is about reaching people of all ages and all abilities. Yet, I felt, that those with special needs where not targeted as strongly. Right away, I enlisted organizations that worked with people with physical and intellectual disabilities to get involved in the council. I did a video clip with my younger brother, to show unique exercises and activities for those with Autism. I got a number of emails and responses from parents of children with autism, saying “Thank you”.
Link2Us: Did your parents have discussions with you and your sister about your brother – about Autism and reactions from others toward your brother?
DD: I think, at the time, my parents were very unaware of what Autism was. As a young person, I remembered trying to help my brother Don, write his alphabets – even at 6 or 7 years old. I use to think, that he was just a little slower. He was very active a home; he played basketball – and loved running. The work that I have been doing on the council has opened my eyes to this disability. I have been able to find a number of organizations that do specifically target individuals with disabilities . . . it has truly been an eye opener.
Link2Us: Who are your personal heroes? Who inspires you?
DD: My role model is my coach, Kelli Hill. I took a great deal away from her. She showed me tough love; but, she was also a very caring and compassionate person. She walks the walk. I have a lot of respect for people, that not only speak about something . . . but, more importantly, they are an example of it. Kelli was an example of great work ethics, of sacri- fice, commitment – all of the things that she tried to instill into her young athletes. She showed us this on a daily basis.
Link2Us: Well that’s our time Dominique. And again, congratulations.
DD: Thank you, Monique! I’m at the gym working out as we speak. (Laughs)
Link2Us: Wow! I’m leaving out after this for my run/walk! (Laughter)
DD: Perfect! Bye