Former Olympic Gymnast Takes the Next Leap
Medal-Winning Alum’s New Academy Aims to Build Kids’ Confidence, Self-Esteemby Annie Dankelson | Main photo by Stephanie S. Cordle; Olympics photo by MICHAEL STEELE/EMPICS VIA GETTY IMAGES
Dominique Dawes ’02 flipped, twisted and tumbled her way to four Olympic medals, but the former high-flying gymnast known as “Awesome Dawesome” remembers the low points, too. Judges deducted points for her slightly bowed legs, and she was “constantly” criticized for having flat feet.
“How does that help a kid’s self-esteem at all?” she says.
Now, Dawes is helping to combat that harshly judgmental culture in the sport with her own training facility. The Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy, located in Clarksburg, Md., aims to provide a safe, uplifting environment for kids, fostering friendships and confidence while teaching the sport’s fundamentals. Due to uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, the gym will open once it is safe to do so.
“The purpose of the sport in my academy is not creating Olympic champions,” Dawes says. “The focus is on creating happy, healthy, whole kids—developing the whole person.”
Dawes, who started gymnastics as a 6-year old, worked her way up to the 1992 Olympics by age 15, earning bronze with Team USA. She enrolled at UMD in 1995, bouncing back and forth between her New Leonardtown residence hall and Hill’s Gymnastics Training Center in Gaithersburg to train 36–40 hours a week. After taking time off to compete in the 1996 and 2000 Games, racking up gold and bronze team medals and an individual bronze for her floor routine, she retired from the sport and graduated with a communications degree in 2002.
From there, Dawes became involved in broadcasting, providing gymnastics commentary and analysis for outlets including CBS Sports and Fox Sports. She served as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 2005–06 and was named a co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in 2010. Along the way, she shared her story as a motivational speaker, got married and had four children.
That time away from the grind of competing helped give Dawes a new perspective on gymnastics. People outside the sport, from her husband to attendees at her speaking engagements, opened her eyes to problems with the culture she had trained in, like the intense scrutiny and focus on perfecting flaws in routine.
“People in the audience would ask me, ‘Well, is this something you would put your kids in?’ And I would always say no,” Dawes says. “Yelling or ignoring a kid’s tears, or demeaning or kicking a kid out, or having an enormous amount of control over a kid where their parent can’t even step in—that type of environment is extremely unhealthy.”
Those feelings only intensified in 2016, when gymnasts came forward with allegations of sexual abuse against the now-convicted former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, a “monster,” Dawes says, whom she had previously worked with and trusted.
Dawes set out to create a new kind of gym—one that she’d be comfortable having her own kids attend. Cameras in the performance space allow parents to check on their children’s sessions online at any time. Staff members earn positions not due to their gymnastics background, but rather their experience working with kids. And all abilities and body types are welcome, with a focus on “building a positive sense of self,” Dawes says, “and not looking at yourself and comparing yourself to someone else.”
The gym includes space for co-ed participants ages 9 months to 6 years and a room for “ninja,” an obstacle course-style activity similar to what’s on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior Junior.” It also features recreational, developmental and competitive space for girls in first grade and up, and Dawes hopes to later expand to more locations throughout Maryland.
“The degrading yelling I have witnessed on some of my kids’ sports teams over the years, as well as the pressure to specialize in one sport at the highest level year-round, is so frustrating and heartbreaking as a parent,” says Emily Lederer ’98, a friend of Dawes who helped organize meet and greets to introduce the gym to other Clarksburg moms. “I am so impressed with Dominique’s positive and empowering mission for her academy. It’s so refreshing.”
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