Catching up with Dominique Dawes

You remember Dominique Dawes. Even if you know nothing about gymnastics, you probably know the name or can recall the face.

In 1996, at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the U.S. women won their first gymnastics team gold. The feat was punctuated by Kerri Strug's dramatic one-footed landing on the vault to seal the victory.

Because of that famous injury, Strug, the first qualifier for the individual floor competition, pulled out of the finals for that event, which opened the door for her teammate, Dominique Dawes.

Dawes, a 19-year-old from Silver Spring, Md., capitalized on the opportunity with this performance and nabbed bronze, thus becoming the first African-American ever to win an individual event medal in gymnastics.

The casual sports fan probably doesn't know all the details of this accomplishment, but no doubt some of the reason she resonates so strongly with so many people is because she was the only black woman on the team. While some may argue this signals a form of racial discernment, it also speaks to the magnitude of Dawes' pioneering achievement. Like Dawes herself, her success was unique.

"There are girls who come up to me and say that it is because of me that they are involved in gymnastics. I hear that a lot and each time I am flattered," she says. "I go to events and people can still tell me where they were watching the Games and how I did in each event, and even the look I had on my face. That's when I'm like, 'Wow, you know, this really struck a chord with people.' It just baffles me, actually; it's really special."

Dawes began taking gymnastics lessons when she was 6 years old and was competing by age 10. Just five years removed from the first gymnastics meet of her life, Dawes burst onto the international scene, becoming the first African-American woman to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, in 1992. Dawes won a bronze medal with the U.S. team at the Games in Barcelona.

After Barcelona, Dawes' success burgeoned. In 1994 at the Coca-Cola National Championships, she became the first U.S. woman in 25 years to "sweep the board" by winning the all-around as well as gold medals in all four individual events (vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise). For her accomplishments, she was named the 1994 Sportsperson of the Year by USA Gymnastics.

She says she remembers getting her first piece of fan mail as a young girl of only 11 years. It's no surprise, then, that the significance of her impact didn't sink in until her competitive career was over. She says that as such a young athlete, it was impossible for her to understand what she was a part of, but today, at age 31, she is more aware of it than ever.

"I compare it to -- of course, it's not as big of a deal, but -- Tiger playing golf or the Williams sisters in tennis. Being there on that stage and having young girls see a diverse team is what allows that sport to be seen as an opportunity for them because they see Tiger, or Venus, or me or someone who looks like them finding success."

And so, it is with that sense of significance and unique success that she hopes to inspire others. Armed with her coming-of-age stories, she mentors young girls in the D.C. area and travels around the nation for motivational speaking engagements (you can check out her Web site for more info).

"I feel as if stories are the best way to guide, mold and inspire," she says. "I truly believe in the value of my story. I think I can leave people with something that helps them set and reach the goals that they are striving for, whether they are in elementary school or businessmen and women."

Dawes preaches the power of finding a passion, staying positive and pursuing a path despite outside challenges. She believes that her life and the persistence she had to exhibit have exclusively prepared her for this vocation.

Having been a six-season member of the U.S. Senior National Team ('91-92 through '96-97), Dawes admits her career wasn't all sunshine and Wheaties box covers. In fact, when asked about her competitive days, she is quick to recall trying times as a young woman growing up in a pressure-filled field.

"In the gymnastic environment, you're always striving for that perfect 10. It very much molds you into a perfectionist," she says. "You start to believe that nothing is good enough unless it's perfect. That carried over throughout my childhood. Dealing with self-esteem issues was difficult as a young girl. Plus, there was the pressure of people's expectations of me and life circumstances, like my parents' divorce, to overcome. It was hard to stay focused -- focused through over 40 hours a week in a gym. There were times when I got down on myself. There were days that I just wanted to give up and walk away."

Dawes says it's real-life struggles -- not just those of an athlete, but as a woman and a person -- that makes her message different than most other retirees behind a podium.

She says that by opening herself up and talking about personal toil, she attempts to connect with her audience. "It's not just the Olympics, and a gold medal and rah, rah, rah," she says of her message.

Throughout the narrative her life, Dawes consistently praises Kelli Hill -- her gymnastics coach since age 6. She maintains that Hill raised her through a demanding childhood and kept her on track for a career that would span over a decade and include an unprecedented trifecta of Olympic appearances (Barcelona '92, Atlanta '96 and Sydney '00).

"I wouldn't be where I am without her support and guidance," Dawes says of Hill. "I didn't get here on my own. In my 18 years in the sport, she did a very good job protecting me from everything that was going on outside of gymnastics. She made me focus on the things I had control of and everything else was just put aside in a stack -- everything from how the judges felt about me to the temperature of the gym. She was very big on instilling that lesson."

After dabbling in the entertainment industry, performing on Broadway and spending some time in the broadcast booth, Dawes says she has finally found her true calling in sharing life's lessons with others.

"I really think that God placed me in the gymnastics arena because that was my passion, but my purpose is to inspire people with that passion."

Dawes refuses to settle on the achievements of her past. As she says, "If you're just like, 'Hey, I won a gold medal and I have three Olympics under my belt and I broke down barriers,' and you do nothing else, it means nothing."

So she aspires to give those medals meaning.

Years removed from that red, white and blue leotard, Dawes continues to inspire. She paved the way to possibility as a young girl, but she is forever a part of something much bigger than the five-foot frame that first captured our hearts.

"What I do today is I try to put life into those accolades. I'm not saying I'm some guru, or anything crazy, but I know that this story can inspire. I truly believe in my story. I know that people were watching that Olympics and they saw me grow up and succeed, and now that I am older I realize I am a part of something bigger."

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.