Dominique Dawes, Olympian To Health Advocate Dawes is the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in gymnastics. Now at age 35, she's dedicated to helping others maintain healthy lifestyles. She speaks with host Michel Martin about her career, and how families can handle the challenges that face their student-athletes.
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Dominique Dawes, Olympian To Health Advocate

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Dominique Dawes, Olympian To Health Advocate

Dominique Dawes, Olympian To Health Advocate

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

Today, we have with us Olympic gold medalist, Dominique Dawes. She is the first African-American woman to win an individual medal in gymnastics at the Olympic Games. That happened in 1996 in Atlanta. And she's the only African-American with an Olympic gold medal in the sport.

After devoting 18 years to gymnastics, she retired, then worked on Broadway and in television news. In 2010, President Obama appointed her as co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

Dominique Dawes was kind enough to stop by our studios here in Washington, D.C. recently after she gave a talk to raise awareness about diabetes at Howard University. The disease affects more than 25 million Americans, including some members of her own family.

Dominique Dawes, welcome. Thanks so much for coming in.

DOMINIQUE DAWES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you don't suffer from diabetes yourself, but members of your family do. Is that how you got interested in the subject?

DAWES: Well, I've been interested in health advocacy for so many years. I've been retired from the sport for 11 years and much of that time has been focusing on combating childhood obesity, educating women on cardiovascular disease and then I just teamed up recently with Sweet'N Low to raise awareness to diabetes.

And, as you mentioned, I was at Howard University and I was there to educate and empower people on taking more control of their actual health.

MARTIN: Why do you think diabetes is so prevalent in this country right now? And it certainly does affect different groups disproportionately. I mean, we keep focusing on, you know, the ethnic aspect of it, in part, because members of so-called ethnic minority groups, like African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are more likely to have diabetes than the general population. Why is that?

DAWES: Well, Type 2 Diabetes - many times, there's an onset because of lifestyle choices. It has to do with living a sedentary lifestyle or having a poor diet or an excessive amount of unhealthy food. And so that's something I learned by surrounding myself with very well educated physicians and people, like dietitians that have taught me about this.

And so there were a number of people, not only in D.C. but also in New York City, where we did this screening, that had actually tested positive for Type 2 Diabetes and they were not aware that they had this disorder.

MARTIN: What would you say to people who would argue, well, gosh, you know, your whole life has been about, you know, knowing your body and nutrition and fitness and, you know, what does that have to do with me? You know, I sit at a keyboard all day. What can you possibly tell me?

DAWES: Well, I can relate, really, to the everyday person because, today, I am an everyday person. When I retired from the sport at 23 years old, I started living a normal life. I was no longer training the five to seven hours a day in the gym for six days a week and, like everyone, I put on the 15 or 20 pounds during my freshman year in college. I do have a gym membership but I am not someone that's always motivated to go to the gym.

I think people assume, because I did the sport of gymnastics for 18 years, that I love and I'm excited about going to the gym. And, no, I'm like the everyday person where I, many times, dread going to the gym, but I know that, if I don't work out for a certain number of days a week, I'm going to feel horrible.

It's not about - for me, anymore - getting this Olympic physique that I know I'm never going to get back. At 35 years old, I look at myself in the mirror and I do see a 35 year old body right now forming and I love it, but I know that I need to get out, not only for my physical health, but also for my emotional health. I just feel better about myself and I'm more productive and I must say that I'm probably more enjoyable to be around when I'm working out and eating right.

MARTIN: Let's go back and talk about your career in gymnastics, by the way. I understand that you began competing - you started at age six, began competing at age 10, got international attention at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But how did you get bitten by bug? I mean, that's just one of the things that I think a lot of people always wonder with a sport that really demands a lot of attention and commitment at a very young age. Were you pushing you or were your parents pushing you?

DAWES: Well, it was a combination. Honestly, when it comes to pushing, it was myself because I had high expectations, but also my coach. My parents were, of course, present, but they weren't there to push me. They weren't those parents that were going to burn me out or any of my siblings out in whatever we chose to pursue.

But my coach was someone that, when I set the bar at a level, she set it about three notches up higher.

MARTIN: Was it a thing where you had kind of a natural gift and your coach saw this and said, we need to develop this gift?


MARTIN: Or was it something like - you just loved the sport so much that you just wouldn't leave?

DAWES: It was a combination of the both. You know, it was the talent, but at the same time, I had a passion for the sport at a very young age. I didn't want to leave the gym. If I had to leave early for whatever reason, I would be crying or upset about it and I always wanted to get to practice on time and so, if my mom took me late, I would mope and be upset about it because I wanted to be there at the start so I didn't miss out on any opportunities to get better in the sport. There was a lot that I was fighting through, but every month when I wanted to quit there was either a parent or my sibling or my coach that was like no, you have a talent in this, stick it out. And just hearing that, that kept me in the sport. And so, to this day I'm very thankful that I had a great team of people that always said the right things at the right time.

MARTIN: Let me just play a clip from a broadcast of your balance beam routine during the trials leading up to 1996. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: There is at this moment nothing tangible other than pride at stake for Dominique Dawes. She will be going to the Olympic Games, even if she were to fall off the rest of her routine here.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Big dismount planned. In the past she's taken out the full twist in the double summi of the beam. We'll see what she does here tonight. Oh, she went for it.


MARTIN: 1996 was a very big year.


MARTIN: Was it fun to hear that again?

DAWES: You know, it definitely was.

MARTIN: Well, you wouldn't have heard. You were doing your thing. You wouldn't have heard the announcers.

DAWES: You know, I never, of course, heard the announcers. But I will say this, that I heard chatter in the audience and I would hear the cameras clicking. I was very aware of what was going on around me.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite Olympic moment that you want to share?

DAWES: You know, I guess in the arena, believe it or not, it's kind of odd, but my favorite Olympic moment would definitely have been my fall in the all-around competition. I know. Everyone gets this odd look on their face when I say it, and that may explain. It's because I feel when you have certain mistakes or failures in life there's always an opportunity for a lesson to be learned. And, of course, at 19 years old when I made that mistake and felt like I had disappointed all 50,000 people in the Georgia Dome and millions of people watching, I didn't take this in right away. But when I retired from the sport I took some time to self reflect and I figured out what went wrong at that moment. And it was good to recognize that it was an issue that I was dealing with in practice weeks, months, earlier, where I did not want to work on that particular skill.

And so, that's something I always speak to young people about - that if you give 70 or 80 percent effort you're going to get 70 or 80 percent outcome.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you're part of the magnificent seven that took home the gold. And as we mentioned, you are the first female African-American gymnast to earn an individual medal. Did that mean anything to you at the time?

DAWES: At the time no. I mean I had received fan mail back then when people actually wrote letters, when it was snail mail. But a number of African-Americans were thanking me for breaking down a barrier and opening doors for other young African-American girls and boys, and really other people of minorities. However, I didn't get it until Halle Berry won the Oscar. And I don't remember what year it was, but I was home. I remember sitting in my living room bawling because I thought about the impact that her achievement was going to make on her race and on young people that were seeing that oh, she can do it, I can do it too, and then that's when the light bulb went on and I was like oh, I get it. That's why people would come up to me and bawl and cry to me, and be like oh thank you for all that you've done. And I never quite understood it until that moment.

MARTIN: What did you think they were talking about?

DAWES: Well, I understood what they were talking about but I didn't feel...

MARTIN: Intellectually. Yeah.

DAWES: I had felt that moment before because I was living it. That was - I was just doing my job and yes, I understood that there was more diversity in the sport because of myself or other African-Americans that had competed before me, but I didn't quite get the impact until I had seen the win by Halle Berry.

MARTIN: When you went into the arena to compete did you feel that you were not just competing for you or for your team or for your coach or for your family, but also carrying the weight of all these African-Americans as kind of a symbol or a role model?

DAWES: I mean definitely I understood that I had a great deal of pressure on me and that I was representing not only my country and the organization but also my race, and I verbalized that in many of my interviews throughout the years, but I didn't quite grasp it until when Halle won the Oscar. So I did feel it and there was a great deal of pressure. And when I made a mistake at those Olympic Games I felt like I had not only disappointed myself but all the people that had sacrificed so much for me, as well as the fans. Because I really think that I lasted that long in the sport of gymnastics for 18 years because of the fan support that I had along the way.

MARTIN: So there were pluses and minuses to that pressure. Because what I was going to ask you is that fair to put so much pressure on a kid?

DAWES: I don't think it was so much of a minus for me because I truly believe that's where the Lord wanted me to be. And I think he blessed me with the talents and gifts in the sport of gymnastics so that I could bless others and he knew that I could handle the pressure that came at me.

MARTIN: We still don't see though at the top levels of the sport the kind of diversity that many people might have expected in the wake of your achievements, and also on the men's side - Jair Lynch, for example.

DAWES: Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't know that we're seeing another Dominique Dawes rise in...

DAWES: Well, there is - I mean if you go to gymnastics gyms now and you look at the grass root levels there is definitely a great deal of diversity now in comparison to what it was like back in the 80s or let's say even the early 90s. However, there have been a number of African-Americans that have represented the U.S., Betty Okino being one at the '92 Olympic team. As you mentioned, Jair Lynch, Terin Humphrey, Tasha Schwikert, and then the Cuban-American that competed at the 2004 Olympic Games. But coming up for 2012, there's a young girl, her name is Gabby Douglas, African-American, hopefully will qualify for the Olympics and you'll see a little bit again of diversity, and hopefully that will continue to change.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes. There have been a number of stories in the news recently involving scandals with collegiate level coaches who have been horribly abusive to young people within their zone.

DAWES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: When you look at these scandals is there something that you as a student, a young student athlete yourself spending a lot of time in your sport could advise parents and caregivers about how to be alert for signs a relationship is inappropriate?

DAWES: The advice that I would give to parents, I would say to have a close relationship with the coach. If you are in a facility and the coach ignores you and does not want to communicate with you as a parent, then you should take your business and your money elsewhere. And that happens a lot of times where coaches will avoid the parents and sometimes, you know, it might be understandable, but I really think it's important for parents to get to know the coaches and to communicate with them. And also to have that open communication with their child so that if something does occur that their child will feel comfortable to open up to their parent, but at the same time with these cases that have come out there might have been the open communication and yet be unfortunately...

MARTIN: The child didn't disclose or speak in time or tell people what was going on...

DAWES: Exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...or didn't feel he or she could stand up for herself.

DAWES: And, I think in just having that trusted environment with, you know what your child and them feeling comfortable enough to tell you all that's going on.

MARTIN: The other thing I wanted to get your perspective on is this cool question right now, it's mainly about, you know, football and basketball, where a number of - it's just that people are seeing that football is just dominating too much of collegiate life. But more broadly, there's been a conversation about whether student athletes really are student athletes or really whether they're semiprofessionals.

DAWES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Do you have some advice about how you can compete at a high level without distorting the rest of your life? So that if once that sport ends or if perhaps you have an injury you don't even know you who you are.

DAWES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: It does take over your life to the point where you don't know anything else. Is there, do you have some advice about that?

DAWES: Well, I was never a student athlete, though I did get a full scholarship to Stanford but I decided to stay in Maryland and trained for two different Olympic Games after my first. But I've heard a number of stories where there our student athletes that have been told by coaches or people a part of the athletic department that you are here first and foremost for athletics and then your education comes second. And I think that being told to young people is detrimental because it's such a small percentage of us that make it to the professional level or to the Olympic level, and if you become professional then you do make an income from it. And so I really would hope that universities do allow the student athletes to be students verse and then athletes second.

MARTIN: But you didn't, you skipped that, though.

DAWES: Yeah I do...

MARTIN: You really trained full-time. And what did you do, you home-school?

DAWES: I did not home-school. I mean during my younger years I was in public school that I went to the University of Maryland, College Park, and I was just a student. I was not doing athletics for the university because I had chosen to become a professional athlete, so I would drive from College Park to Gaithersburg to my coach's gym, trained for the five or the two to five hours or five to seven hours that I trained a day, and I would head back to the university. So my situation was very unique. But I would say for those young gymnasts today that are considering or contemplating going professional, make sure you have a trusted network of people, a small support system and people that are going to advise you truthfully and not tell you maybe either what you want to hear, what sounds good. Though it worked for me it may not work for others.

MARTIN: Dominique Dawes is a three-time Olympic medalist. She is now a health and nutrition advocate. She was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios after talking about diabetes and health at Howard University.

Dominique Dawes, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAWES: Thank you.

MARTIN: Congratulations on everything you've accomplished.

DAWES: Thank you for having me here. I appreciated.

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