Nearly 26 years ago, Silver Spring native Dominique Dawes and her “Magnificent Seven” teammates captured the hearts of millions by winning gold in women’s team gymnastics at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Dawes’ brilliant performance and her status as the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics turned her into one of the most recognizable athletes in the country. She appeared on a Wheaties box, and a parade was thrown in her honor in Montgomery County.
Dawes, 45, also won bronze medals as a member of Team USA at the 1992 and 2000 Games (as well as an individual bronze in the floor exercise in Atlanta). As much as gymnastics has given her, Dawes says it’s taken a hefty toll. For the past few years, she has been a vocal critic of the sport’s “toxic culture,” speaking out against the abuse that she says she and other gymnasts endured.
“The experiences that I had as a child in gymnastics from nearly age 6 to 24 years old, I do not want my children experiencing,” she says. “While I think the sport is beautiful…I do not want any kids experiencing what I experienced.”
These days she’s focused on ensuring that no child in gymnastics suffers the way she did. In July 2020, she opened the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics & Ninja Academy in Clarksburg, and this fall she plans to open a second location in the Montrose Shopping Center in Rockville. Her goal is simple: to change the paradigm of the sport she loves.
“What we are preaching here is what we are teaching here, in that it’s about empowering your child,” she says. “We’re not about tearing down your child to lift them up, so that you as a parent have to pick up the pieces later on. It is not about getting your child to the top of a podium. It’s all about building that healthy culture and helping parents recognize the value of being in [an] empowering and positive environment.”
Dawes attended Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring for her freshman year before transferring to Gaithersburg High School. She graduated in 1994. In 2013, she married her husband, Jeff Thompson, who grew up in Bethesda. They live in the county with their four children, aged 8 and younger, including 4-year-old twins.
Dawes’ husband helps her run the gym, and her daughters take classes there. She says they’re a bit too young to truly understand their mom’s fame, but they’re having fun learning the sport. And that, Dawes says, is what’s most important for all of the children who take classes at the academy.
“While we may not be on top of an Olympic podium anytime soon, our young kids are going to leave the sport and remain in the sport happy and healthy,” she says. “And that matters more to me than an Olympic gold medal and making history.”
We spoke with Dawes via Zoom in December and again on the phone in January.
When did you first realize that you were really good at gymnastics?
I would say probably around 10 or 11 years old. I was doing well in local competitions and regional competitions. I think that definitely helped me realize that I probably had some bit of talent.
What was your daily life like in those days?
My life was gymnastics 24/7. I woke up at 4:45 in the morning and would train from 6 to 8 in the morning. Then I would go to public school, and then I was back at the gym 4 to 9 p.m. at night. [I would] train on the weekend as well. That was really how one trained for the Olympics and the elite level.
You wrote the word “determination” on your bedroom mirror when you were a child. Why?
When I was younger, I would take my parents’ shaving cream and I would write ‘Determination. Dedication. Desire. D3.’ I would use that as a personal motto to help me overcome fears or get through tough times in the sport of gymnastics. Many times when I was at competitions, I would take a piece of chalk and write ‘D3’ along the floor of the vault runway. While it’s physically demanding, it’s a very mental sport, and so I would try to keep my mind focused on something positive and not stay so consumed in the fear or the possibility of disappointing those around me.
You’ve said that you experienced emotional, psychological and physical abuse in the sport. What specifically happened to you?
It’s very tough to talk about for a 45-year-old mother of four kids. [When] everything came out in 2016 with regards to the abuse [by] Larry Nassar, who I knew for nearly 10 years of my childhood, you really start processing things and recognizing how toxic it really [was]. [In an Aug. 1, 2021, Washington Post op-ed, Dawes said she didn’t ‘have any recollection of being sexually abused’ by Nassar, the former team doctor of USA Gymnastics who pleaded guilty in 2017 to multiple counts of criminal sexual misconduct and to possession of child pornography.]
It took me back to very hurtful places—when I was a very young child hiding in a bathroom, afraid to go on the floor to do a backflip on a balance beam. I remember hiding for nearly four hours and my emotional well-being was completely ignored as coaches walked in the gym, and they knew I was hiding, they knew I was afraid. And they did nothing about it. They ignored my fears. At the end of practice, I remember having my name screamed by the gym owner and the coach for me to come out. This was nearly at 9 p.m. I had to get back on that balance beam and do those repetitions.
[Dawes later confirmed through a representative that she was referring to her training at Wheaton Marva Tots and Teens Gymnastics under head coach and owner Kelli Hill. When Bethesda Magazine asked Hill, who now owns Hill’s Gymnastics in Gaithersburg where Dawes later trained, about the incident that Dawes described, she said she doesn’t know what Dawes is referring to. ‘But that is not an acceptable behavior that I would approve of from anyone,’ Hill says. ‘I love her dearly. I hope she’s OK.’]
I never want any of my kids or anyone else’s kids to go through that level of emotional abuse and verbal abuse. This was not something unique just to myself, it was everyone. If you were brought to practice late—as a young child, you have no control over when your parents are going to get there—you were punished. Many times my mom would pick me up late, and I remember being scolded.
I woke up every single day in fear, with anxiety. Did I love the sport of gymnastics? Yes.
My identity was so wrapped up in the sport. I was Dominique Dawes the gymnast, always training for the Olympics.
That’s why I stayed, because of my teammates and the love I had for the sport. However, the culture that I lived in was toxic and still is.
Do your experiences continue to impact your life?
When Simone Biles was at the Olympic Games [in the summer of 2021], when she cited mental health issues for not competing [in the gymnastics team final], it just reopened wounds. It reopened feeling the enormous amount of pressure and just reliving the times when you never got a day off. Even if you were sick, you still had to go.
Now I’m all about protecting my children and standing up for my younger self. In too many interviews I gave canned responses and I cared too much about maybe what an individual thought of me. I know now that my truth matters and my truth needs to be heard, and there needs to be a change in the sport. How does it affect me today? It motivates me; it drives me; it makes me more determined.
This has honestly been a great part of my healing. It’s not about just providing a healthy environment for the kids. It’s also been [about] the parents. They need to wake up. There are parents that sit in the waiting room and they see the way that their children are crying, are fearful. Or they drop them off and they just trust that the sport of gymnastics is this beautiful sport because we do such amazing things, but it’s damaging your children in some cases.
How did winning gold in Atlanta change your life?
Being a part of a team that made history on American soil was definitely quite life changing. I was also a professional athlete, and so becoming a personality and doing endorsements and things of that nature, and speaking engagements and such, definitely increased. It’s definitely not my personality, per se. I am by nature a little bit more of an introverted person.
After winning gold, you get a number of different people that are interested in connecting with you. I remember my agent at that time said, ‘The artist formerly known as Prince would love for you to be in a music video.’ I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing.’ I grew up a big Prince fan. I remember being in Orlando, Prince called me—or [he] claimed it was the artist formerly known as Prince—and I thought it was a joke, so I hung up on the individual. I remember my agent calling me back and being like, ‘You just hung up on Prince.’ Soon thereafter, I was in Minnesota at Paisley Park [Prince’s home and studio] and had the opportunity to work with one of the most talented artists, [who has] left us with so many amazing gifts. [Dawes appeared in Prince’s 1996 music video for ‘Betcha By Golly Wow!’]
When I was in New York City, I lived in Manhattan and I was on Broadway in the musical Grease [from April through July 1997]. I was the bubbly outspoken cheerleader running after Danny Zuko. So not my personality, no clue how I did it. I got a call from Kobe Bryant. We ended up chatting for a while and getting to know one another. I spent my 21st birthday out in L.A. with him and it was kind of cool.
What did becoming the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics mean to you?
It was an honor. It was definitely something I felt very blessed to inspire possibly a generation of young people of color to see the sport of gymnastics as an opportunity for them to excel. I took that responsibility quite seriously and recognized that I wanted to be sure that I was leading people in the right direction.
Do people still call you Awesome Dawesome?
Ha! No one that knows me, absolutely not. You know, it’s funny, I used to always give credit to [former Washington Post columnist and current ESPN personality] Michael Wilbon for that unique name. I remember the last time I saw him I was like, ‘Did you come up with Awesome Dawesome? Because I feel like I need to give someone credit for this.’ He was like, ‘I don’t think it was me.’ I hear it every now and then, and even my company in Rockville is called Awesome Dawesome LLC. Cheesy, I know. But no one calls me that who knows me because I’m not as awesome as people think.
You said you never saw yourself as a gym owner. What changed?
Being a mom. I [have] done motivational speaking for 25 years now. [Before I had children] I would open the floor for Q and A, and people would ask, ‘If you had children, would you want them to go through what you went through?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I said, ‘The sport of gymnastics is great for building a strong foundation’…blah blah blah, but if I have children, I do not want them in the sport. What did I do after I birthed my first child? I put her in the sport. I remember driving to the gym and reliving the anxiety that I would feel each and every day when I was driving myself to practice or being driven to practice.
One time my husband was like, ‘Why are you stressed out? We’re just running a few minutes late.’ I remember being that young child and feeling as if I’m going to get punished for being late. I would walk in and I would put on a smile and I would act like I was happy to be there. But on the inside, I couldn’t stand being there.
I kept telling my husband that I will be her protector. I won’t allow what happened to me to happen to our daughter. And then when everything came out with regards to Larry Nassar, I realized, oh my goodness, you can’t think that you can sit on the sidelines and protect your children when there are very unhealthy people on the floor damaging your children. You have to take them out of that environment. And if it means your Olympic pursuits of gymnastics are shattered for parents, so be it. You’re saving your child.
What are you doing differently at your gym?
I thought it would be this magical formula. But you know what it has to do with? Hiring the right people that truly love working with kids, that are passionate about working with kids, that recognize the way that they speak to kids, the way that they look at kids, the way that they treat kids in all ways matters and will either lift up the self-esteem of a child or tear it down. That’s who we have on our team—people that are happy to come to work and recognize that they are role models for these kids.
It’s not about building Olympic champions, and in the process tearing people apart and tearing families apart, but it’s truly about putting smiles on kids’ faces.
A couple of parents asked, ‘Do you really think you can build Olympic champions the way that you guys are coaching?’ We don’t have a competitive program yet. I will develop one when I find the right federation to be under. I could care less about building Olympic champions. I care about building the self-esteem of every child that comes through our doors. There’s going to be a day when they’re going to have to walk away from the gym or walk away from the sport of gymnastics, and I want them to look at themselves in the mirror and love who they are.
What is your specific role at the gym?
I’m there a couple days a week, but I am running it behind the scenes as well. I am not a coach on the floor. I’ve jumped in for coverage and I have told my staff that the best days of running the business [are] when I’m on the floor coaching. Running a business during a global pandemic definitely has a unique set of challenges. [We] never could have prepared for this. Who could? We actually do like the manageable slow growth. We have 3,200 people in our database that want to come through our doors. We cannot accommodate them right now because I’m very selective on who I hire for staff members and coaches on the floor because I want them to be the right fit with our culture and our vision so that they are providing the level of character and encouragement and empowerment that we want to have.
When I’m out on the floor coaching, I will say it’s a lot of fun. The last time I went in and I coached, I rolled my ankle and one of my staff members laughed at me and said, ‘You’re trying too hard.’ But it’s so much fun to be in a healthy gym environment. That’s not something I grew up in, and it’s not something I’m very accustomed to, and so when I am in there and I get a chance to coach, that’s truly the fun part of the business.
As gymnasts begin competing at a higher level, how can parents make sure their child is in a healthy environment?
A kid’s not going to know. A kid’s going to trust that mom or dad drops them off in this environment and mom and dad trusts the coach or the owner and hopefully there is this synergy with regards to the values that one teaches in the home. Parents need to wake up and they need to get to know these owners.
I’m going to cap the number of hours that they’re going to train because I don’t want them to live in a leotard 24/7. That’s a problem—gymnasts tend to live in the gym. Their identity is wrapped around that one sport, and when that one sport is not going well, if you’re not perfect, you feel like you’re letting someone down. You feel like a loser, like you’re not good enough because you didn’t make that training camp or that national team. We are making sure that parents and kids alike recognize that their self-esteem is not wrapped up in their ranking or what level they are, but it is based on who they are and their character and how good of a teammate they are, the attitude they have or the effort that they give.
When we start a competitive program, I know it’s going to be with a national governing body that is like-minded with us. [One] that recognizes that the emotional and physical health of every young girl matters. It’s highly likely that we will not be under USA Gymnastics.
We have talked a lot about the negative sides of the sport. What are some of the positive aspects of being a gymnast?
People are amazed at what these young girls can do. Not only their physical toughness, but the emotional, the mental [side]. I remember being 19 years old at the Atlanta Games with nearly 50,000 people in the Georgia Dome and feeling that enormous amount of pressure in wanting to represent my country.
So many people have pulled me aside to say, ‘I remember watching you and your teammates with my grandmother, who’s no longer here.’ They love to share with me the stories of how much myself or my teammates were able to inspire them.
Just think of Kerri Strug’s vault. Those ’96 Olympic Games were truly one of the most memorable, and that was one of the most memorable Olympic moments because of what she endured. [Strug injured her ankle but continued competing.]
But look at how we now look at that situation differently. Back then, she was hailed as a hero because she sacrificed her physical and emotional health for the team. Even though we already had won prior, she didn’t know it. And she did everything that she could to make sure that the team made history. We were the first [American] women’s gymnastics team to ever win gold. But now, after everything has come to light with regards to mental health, as a parent would I want my kid in those shoes standing at the end of that vault runway? It’s not war. It’s a sport.
Do you ever look at your medals or take them out to show people?
They’re put away on a shelf right now in my office area. … I think the last time I took [one] out was to bring it to the gym. We had a fun little outing, and parents and kids love to look at the medals, so that’s always a joy. But I don’t necessarily pull [them] out for myself. My kids have seen them enough. I think that they’re over it.
What was your reaction upon hearing that Montgomery County has commissioned a sculpture of you for a recreation and aquatics center in Silver Spring?
I will say it definitely caught me off guard. The full story is that the sculptor reached out to us personally, and I really did think it was a joke. I didn’t think this gentleman had the right person, but then my husband did some research and found out that this guy was an award-winning sculptor, Brian Hanlon, who’s an amazing guy. …What I loved most about this is that Brian Hanlon had said it’s really not about you, it’s about the generation of young people that you’ve inspired. That’s where I embraced it, because I felt like if I can help plant a seed of hope or inspiration or drive in a young person, then I would feel very honored and blessed to have this erected in my honor.
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.