With the Winter Olympics and Black History Month in full effect, it’s only right that we highlight trailblazer Dominique Dawes, who made history in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
She became the first Black American gymnast to take home gold as part of her team’s success in the Atlanta games. Along with Jair Lynch that year, she was also the first Black American ever to take home an individual Olympic medal when she won bronze for her floor routine.
Dawes recently spoke to ESSENCE about being inspired by a new generation of gymnasts, her work to change the culture of the sport, and a new docuseries on Peacock that she’s executive producing with NBA superstar LeBron James to highlight elite gymnasts heading to the Olympic Trials.
Here are four things we learned from the legendary gymnast.
Dawes was also forthright about how that feat was overshadowed by conversations about Gabby’s hair. “The focus was on hair and things that were so superficial, and they lost sight of the great impact that she made. And her impact was so great that my second child, her name is Quinn Gabriella, named after Gabby Douglas.”
Though her commitment led to a 96 Olympic win, the result of that kind of pressure on young women also led to “the likes of Larry Nassar and that culture and the toxicity,” she said.
The series follows gymnasts on the road to the Tokyo Olympics. Dawes says the anxiety and fear she experienced on her way to her Olympic wins are also reflected in the series among a new generation of gymnasts. “You see what the young girls are going through, you see the fears, you see the anxiety, you see the pressure, you see the regret, you see the lack of enjoyment,” she says. “And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, ‘hey, there needs to be a change.'”
She started the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics and Ninja Academy to do that. The second academy opens in the fall of 2022 in Rockville, Maryland, after their first academy opened in July 2020 in Clarksburg, Maryland. Dawes is also looking at future locations.
“I want kids to have a balanced childhood,” she shared. “If you don’t want them to have a balanced childhood then go to a gym down the street, they’ll make sure your child is living in the gym. But I am trying to change the way that the sport has made people believe it has to be.”