From the mat to the platform: Olympian Dominique Dawes to speak at Shepherd University

February 20, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Dominique Dawes is a three-time Olympian who is the co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
Submitted photo

It was a single flip on her parents' mattress that determined her future.

Never mind that she was 3 years old. The talent already was there.

But Dominique Dawes had no way of knowing at such a tender age that she would one day vault into the spotlight as an elite gymnast.

"I was just a child who liked to tumble and roll around," she said.

Dawes said her mother remembers that first flip on the bed — a move by the toddler that was self-taught.

"I was an active kid," she said. "So my mother signed me and my older sister, Danielle, up for a gymnastics class. I instantly fell in love with the sport and, of course, it became my passion."

Dawes grew up to become one of America's sweetheart gymnasts — a three-time Olympian who inspired a generation of young girls to follow in her footsteps.

Today, at 35, she still is inspiring people. But this time it's not just about gymnastics. It's about encouraging individuals to lead healthier lifestyles.

Dawes is co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition — a position she has held for about two years alongside NFL quarterback Drew Brees.

In her role, Dawes said she's a bit of an ambassador talking to people about physical activity and making the right food choices.

She also talks about setting goals and the importance of building healthy self-esteem, which she believes is especially critical among young people.

Dawes will be bringing her message to Shepherd University on Wednesday, Feb. 22, as the guest speaker for National Recreation Sports and Fitness Day — an event that focuses on the positive benefits of recreational sports, fitness and wellness.

Hosted by Shepherd University Intramurals, the talk will begin at 7 p.m. in Storer Ballroom and is free and open to students, faculty, staff and the community.

"I have always tried to encourage young kids to get involved in sports and have talked about the importance of physical activity and proper nutrition," Dawes said. "Now, to do it on this platform with this administration truly is an honor."

Dawes said she began training as a gymnast when she was 6 years old and it wasn't long before she had a goal of one day competing in the Olympics.

Growing up in Silver Spring, Md., "I was already competing locally and regionally by the time I was 10 and I think it was pretty evident that I had a significant amount of talent," she said. "More importantly, I had the drive and dedication to the sport and so I started dreaming of going to the Olympics and thinking about the journey that it would take to get there.

"Of course, as a young girl you have no clue the amount of commitment it would take, not only from me but also my coach and my family," she added. "Just knowing the bumps I would have to face — it's definitely something I could never have envisioned."

But Dawes said once she set an Olympic goal, her commitment level rose "and that changed my life forever. I had to overcome a great deal of fear. I had to change my attitude. And I had to do all these things every single day."

Dawes not only made it to the Olympics, she did so three times, winning team medals at each game.

She garnered international attention as part of the gold-medal winning team known as the "Magnificent 7," a group of Americans that dominated gymnastic competition at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. She also became the first black female to win an Olympic gymnastics individual event medal, taking home a bronze for her floor exercise performance. Her epic wins made a major impact on her sport and spiked an interest in gymnastics among young people.

But, at the time, Dawes said, she didn't realize just how big the impact would be.

"You know, really, I didn't immediately see the importance of my accomplishments," she recalled. "I had received letters since I was a very young girl and so I knew I already had inspired a number of young athletes. But I didn't recognize the impact I had on my race and possibly on the self-esteem of young people — teaching them how to dream and to never give up. It was just little ole me."

Dawes said her success in the Olympics led to other ventures in life, including Broadway in a revival of "Grease," playing cheerleader Patty Simcox. She also tried her hand in the television broadcast booth.

That she was able to shift career choices was a surprise to her "because I am the most fearful person there is. I'm not someone who is comfortable getting out of my comfort zone."

And that makes it even more surprising, she said, that she would eventually become a motivational speaker.

"It was something that was extremely difficult for me," she said. "I didn't like speaking to crowds. But once I was finally able to face that fear and recognize it's more than just being about me, that it's about impacting lives, I really developed a passion for it."

Dawes said she speaks to a wide range of people — from student athletes to corporate executives, sharing her personal and professional philosophies and helping others gain strength and confidence in the challenges of life.

"It's something that's very rewarding for me," she said.

Her position with the President's Council on Physical Activity, Sports and Nutrition also involves public speaking, she said, but the topic makes it easier for her.

"I'm very passionate about this cause of health, fitness and wellness," she shared.

Dawes said it's not difficult to convince people to become active and develop good eating habits.

"The thing for me is to encourage them to recognize that it's not just about vanity. It's about vitality. It's not about focusing on a particular size or wearing a piece of clothing that you want to get into," she said. "It's about what's going on in the inside and if you're feeling good on the inside, your numbers are healthy, then you'll become more productive.  You will have a healthier self-esteem. You will want to give more of yourself and will have more energy. So that's really what I'm striving to talk to people about."

Dawes said vitality rather than vanity will be her message at Shepherd University "because I think that's important for young college students to hear, as well as the professors. It's about developing, growing and not being a victim to today's standards that includes advertising that tells us that we're not thin enough, we're not tall enough, we're not enough."

While her competitive days of gymnastics are behind her, Dawes said she continues to stay close to the sport through FUNdamentals with Dominique Dawes — one-day gymnastics clinics for competitive level gymnasts of all ages.

"But I don't strictly focus on gymnastics," she said. "I focus on motivating mental toughness and really having a healthy self-esteem because I know it's crucial for our young people today to have a healthy self-esteem."

Dawes said it's not about giving medals for their participation but instead "I want them to recognize it's all about building character, setting goals and not strictly winning and losing."

If you go ...

WHAT: National Recreation Sports and Fitness Day with guest speaker Dominique Dawes

WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22

WHERE: Shepherd University's Storer Ballroom in the Student Center, King Street, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

COST: Free

CONTACT: Call 304-876-5076 or email

MORE: In case of inclement weather that closes the university, the lecture will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.

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