When one thinks about U.S. women’s gymnastics, a few names and faces immediately come to mind: Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Shannon Miller, Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu. Yet all those names might take a backseat to Dominique Dawes, a three-time Olympian and 1996 gold medalist (she won four medals across three Olympic Games in all).
Dawes, who was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, now serves as the chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, where she champions health and wellness among young Americans. She also serves as a motivational speaker and does gymnastics clinics nationwide.
From the time she first tried out gymnastics at age 6, she was marked for a bright future, deciding at the young age of 10 that she would eventually compete at the Olympics. She would do much more than that.
Dawes has won more national championship medals than any other athlete, male or female, since 1963 and also has collected numerous world championship medals.
As part of Girls Sports Month, Dawes spoke about the challenges she faced in gymnastics and life, how sports helped build her confidence and the opportunities she says for young female athletes today:
USA TODAY (Q): Why are sports so important for girls today? What do they mean for you?
DOMINIQUE DAWES (A): I think sports is so important for young girls because it helps develop the qualities to become successful later in life. I learned about setting goals, working through setbacks, working with teammates. It gives you intangibles to be successful in schoolwork, in work later on. All those intangibles can come from sports.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to make sports your life work? What inspired that commitment?
A: I started gymnastics when I was 6 and I set my sights on the Olympics when I was 10. In the 1990s in gymnastics, you peaked as a young teenager. I was going to be 15 in 1992, when I set my sights on the Olympics at 10-11, I knew that I was going to follow through, and then I earned my scholarship to Stanford University. It wasn’t always about the Olympics, it was about using sports to help me in other aspects of my life, like my future career. When I proceeded to go to the University of Maryland and train for two more Olympics after that, then it became even more of a commitment.
Q: What makes a great leader in sports? Are they born or made?
A: I think it’s a blend of both. Some people have an innate quality about them, that makes people want to follow them. Maybe they’re a positive spokesperson for the team, but also a positive role model in practice beyond when the cameras are on.
I don’t know if I’m the best leader. I think I was a decent leader for the 1996 Olympics, but I love to be coaches. If you tell me what to do, I’ll do it. It took me until later in life to be a better leader.
Q: Are there specific challenges in girls sports, whether from team dynamics or other issues?
A: I think the lack of opportunities is the biggest issue. That puts women behind the 8-ball. That’s why Title IX is so important, so that not only the opportunities but the quality of all the facilities they can work with is at the level of men. It’s taken that, and a long time for muscles to be seen as beautiful and for sweating to be seen as feminine. That’s been because of the pioneers and the people who have spoken up for Title IX. I think we still have a ways to go, but I think it’s great to see my nieces and my two girls, when they get older, to play sports. My girls will play sports; it’s not a choice. Whether they win or lose, they’ll learn from them. If they don’t have the opportunities to play in high school or college, that’s on us as parents for not speaking out to make sure that they have those opportunities.
Q: What was your career in youth sports like?
A: My career was different than most because gymnasts tend to be more intense. It was a lot of hard work, I started at 6 and was so focused on the Olympics by 10-11, and then made the Games when I was 15, 19, 23 and then retired when I was 24. I trained 5-7 hours per day, I woke up at 5 a.m. and went to bed at 11 p.m. It wasn’t typical, but it was fun, and I truly believe that’s where God wanted me to be. It helped me develop the skills that I need now as a mother. As a mom, you think that you’ve hit that line, but you realize you’ve gone through this experience in sports, you take a breather or time out. A lot of what I learned in my Olympic journey is being used now as a 39-year-old mother of two.
A big part of my career had to do with my coach, who was an amazing role model. The role models who these young kids are exposed to are important. And you have to make sure as a parent that the coaches you have in front of your kids fit your own belief systems because they will shape your child’s life.
Q: What advice do you have for girls who want to be involved in a particular sport but may not have access to it?
A: The message wouldn’t be to the young girls, but to the parents, community leaders, teachers and adults who can change that and improve that access. If girls want gymnastics or tennis, go to your local YMCA or other facility and try to ask for it. See if there’s a parent in the community who has experience who can help. I wouldn’t ever put it on the kid unless the kid has to tell someone first. Really, it’s up to parents to make these things happen for our kids. There are a number of wonderful foundations that want to help make things happen for young girls and young boys. Maybe working with a foundation or corporation might make that happen as well.
Statistics have proven that young girls who are involved in sports have higher self esteem, are less likely to participate in underage drinking or experiment with drugs. There are lower rates of teenage pregnancy. When you’re part of a program, you set a goal and you recognize what in the world will help or hinder them toward their goal. I was never going to drink or try drugs because it wasn’t going to get me to the Olympics. Hanging out at the mall wasn’t going to help me reach my goal. That knowledge should inspire every parent to try and get their kids out into sports.
Also, the best way to combat rising child obesity is to get your kids out and moving and eating healthier foods. Sports will help a young girl understand where her priority should be if they care about achieving their goals in sports.