Dominique Dawes got her first piece of fan mail when she was 11 years old. She'd been competing as a gymnast for about a year.
During her career as a gymnast, she didn't realize the impact she was making among young African-American girls.
She does now. In a 2008 interview, she said, "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."
Dominique Dawes got one thing wrong in that interview.
It is as big of a deal.
Dominique Margaux Dawes was born on November 20, 1976, in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Just four months previously, Nadia Comaneci had wowed the world with the first perfect scores in Olympic gymnastics history.) She started taking gymnastics lessons when she was six years old. The woman who coached her, Kelli Hill, remained Dawes' coach for her entire career. Dawes says of her coach, "I wouldn't be where I am without her support and guidance . . . She made me focus on the things I had control of and everything else was just put aside in a stack -- everything from how to judges felt about me to the temperature of the gym. She was very big on instilling that lesson."
Dawes, at nine, would write "determination" on her mirror to prepare herself for her meets. That attitude paid off as she moved upward in the world of gymnastics.
In 1988, she was the first African-American to make the US woman's national gymnastics team. Then four years later -- just five years after her very first gymnastics meet -- she and Betty Okino became the first African-American women to compete in the Olympic Games for the United States. She took home a bronze team medal.
Two years later, at the National Championships, Dawes was the first woman in 25 years to "sweep the board". She won the all-around and all four individual events (balance beam, uneven bars, vault, and floor exercise.) That accomplishment helped name her "Sportsperson of the Year" by USA Gymnastics.
She competed in the Olympics again, in 1996, as part of the "Magnificent Seven" team that won the gold medal, the first US women's gymnastics team to do so. But during the all-around competition, a fall and a step out of bounds cost Dawes the chance to win an individual medal there. She rebounded during the individual floor exercise event, however, and ended up winning the bronze medal. It was the first individual gymnastics medal won by an African-American woman.
Four years later, in Sydney, Dawes again competed as part of the American team. The team finished fourth. Ten years later, though, after an investigation, the US team was moved up to third place when a Chinese gymnast was found to be underage. The Chinese had won the team bronze in 2000. When the Chinese had to give up the bronze medal, the medals went to the United States team . . . which meant that Dominique Dawes became the first gymnast to belong to three separate medal-winning gymnastics teams.
Dawes retired from gymnastics after the 2000 Olympics. Since then, she's been a motivational speaker and appeared on Broadway in the musical Grease. She married teacher Jeff Thompson in 2013 and, in 2014, they had a baby girl.
Dawes will not rest on her laurels. 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."
"Not as big of a deal"?
Not a chance!
Buckheit, Mary, "Catching Up With Dominique Dawes," ESPN.com, February 27, 2008
"Dominique Dawes", Biography.com
Wilson, Stephen, "Former US Olympian Dominique Dawes Gets Medal 10 Years Later," Christian Science Monitor online, April 30, 2010.
"Newly Catholic Dominique Dawes Is Expecting a Baby Girl," Belly Itch Blog, February 8, 2014.