Dominique Dawes Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Over the years, Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes would tell her husband, Jeff Thompson, about her childhood as a gymnastics prodigy growing up in Montgomery County. 

She would mention her tears. She talked about the body shaming that she had seen take place. She explained how young athletes were demeaned and constantly yelled at by adults. She recalled that kids practiced despite being sick. That, Dawes says, was her norm. 

“My husband, who came from not that environment, he’s opened my eyes and has been very much a part of my healing, and said, ‘You know, your upbringing is abnormal, right?’” she says.

The conversations helped lead her to an epiphany. In recent years, Dawes has spoken out about her painful past in the sport. The 43-year-old Silver Spring native now has four kids under the age of 6, including 2-year-old twins. When she attempted to enroll her children in the sport, the negative feelings came rushing back.

“I started realizing a lot of my emotional scars started becoming reopened,” Dawes says. “Anxiety, fear, everything that was literally ingrained in me in the gym, was coming back. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, let me get my kids out of this environment.’”

For her, that meant getting involved herself. To change the intense and sometimes toxic culture of gymnastics gyms, Dawes is taking matters into her own hands. This spring, the first of what she hopes will be several Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academies is set to open in Clarksburg. 

“Really it took me being a mom,” she says, “and having a different perspective on things of my childhood and realizing, hey, the way that I was spoken to or treated, there’s no one that’s going to treat my children that way.”

***

Tandy Knight, Dawes’ friend and former teammate, still vividly recalls the first day Dawes walked into their gym in Wheaton and being amazed by a girl seven years her junior.

“She was this tiny little ball of muscles,” Knight says. “And she ran right over to a set of bars, had to jump up to even get to the low bar, because that’s how tiny she was. And she did what’s called a pullover, which is a basic skill in gymnastics, but still usually takes people a little time to learn it because there’s some strength involved with it. She just hopped up and did it right away. And we all kind of looked at each other and just knew at that point there was something special about her.”

When Dawes and her family moved to Bethesda a few years ago, the two had dinner to catch up. Their conversation revolved around Dawes’ vision for her academy and the desire to make a positive difference in gymnastics.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize that if anyone can change the culture of the sport, and make it a more positive and healthy environment, it’s Dominique,” Knight says.

The sport and its governing body, USA Gymnastics, has been rocked by scandals in recent years. Former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar is serving 60 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges, and received a subsequent sentence of 175 years in state prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Former gymnasts have also alleged that famed coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi fostered a culture of fear and inflicted emotional and verbal abuse on their students at their now-closed training center. 

Dawes, who at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta became the first African American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics, has praised the courage of the hundreds of gymnasts who have spoken out against Nassar and in part blames the ultra competitive and intimidating atmosphere of gymnastics for allowing Nassar to get away with his actions for as long as he did.

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“People that probably wanted to speak out were too fearful to speak out,” Dawes says. “Because if you come from an environment where there’s a lot of emotional and verbal and physical abuse, and then there’s another abuse kind of mounted on top of it, you’re kind of like, well, this is just acceptable. This is just the norm. There’s no safe.”

***

On a recent Friday morning in Clarksburg, Dawes bounced between the two suites where her academy will be located. Construction has yet to begin; the walls of one are still covered in the bright colors of the former tenant, and a large Tesla sign hangs on the wall of the other.

But Dawes has been busy interviewing potential coaches for the gym. The sessions, she says, have become a “therapeutic healing experience” for some former gymnasts who have the shared “emotional scars” of growing up in a gymnastics gym.

“I’m looking for people with exceptional character, love working with kids,” Dawes explains. “Of course, the gymnastics background is key. But what I’m also trying to reiterate is, when I sit down with a number of staff that were gymnasts, they share with me the ways they were treated. And literally it turns into a healing session.”

The Clarksburg location will include programs for school-age children, a competitive team program for girls, and a co-ed area for ninja training—an aspect of gymnastics that has become popular with kids and popularized in the TV series American Ninja Warrior.

If parents are looking for a place to send their kids full-time, the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy won’t be the right fit for them. Dawes doesn’t want to see kids living in the gym.

“My childhood of 36-plus hours in the gym and wake up at 5 a.m. and training for multiple Olympics is not the norm,” she says. “If your kid is that talented and really wants to do that, by all means I’m not going to squash your dreams and hopes, but this might not be the environment for you. So I’m talking about the importance of having a balanced childhood.”

In interviews, Dawes is careful to not mention the name of her former coach and childhood gym. But she admits that people will begin to “put the pieces together.”

Dawes trained under coach Kelli Hill at Hills Gymnastics in Gaithersburg, about 12 miles away from Dawes’ future academy in Clarksburg. Dawes does not currently speak to Hill.

“There are definitely those life skills that you learn that help you want to achieve,” she says of the lessons she learned at Hills Gymnastics. “I think [I learned about] setting goals [and] trying to achieve those goals, but anything about true friendship, happiness, what’s truly going to make you fulfilled in this world, I did not learn there.”

Reached for comment, Hill says she hasn’t seen much of Dawes the last two years but that they’ve been “very, very close,” in the past, calling her “more like family than anything else” and offering to “help anyway I can” with launching her academy.

“I’ve reached out many times,” Hill adds. “She has not responded.” 

Hill has heard Dawes talk about her desire to change the culture of gymnastics gyms compared to what she experienced as a child, but says she has “no idea” what Dawes is referring to.

Dawes, for her part, sounds ready to move on.

“What I’m saying is, I feel very free now, at 43 years old, to speak my truth. And there’s nothing that I’m doing that is embellishing or not truthful,” she says. “I just know as a parent, I would not have my kid in that environment.”

***

From a young age, Dawes recognized the impact she could have. Whenever she wanted to quit gymnastics, she thought about the letters she received from fans, and it motivated her to continue.

In her post-Olympic life, she dabbled in media work, and also spent time as a motivational speaker. She briefly appeared on Broadway in the musical Grease— “I did very poorly,” Dawes says—and served as the co-chair for the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, & Nutrition under President Barack Obama.

But none of those felt like career callings. Her grandfather and father encouraged her to start a gym for years. She hesitated because she didn’t want to live the life of gym owners and head coaches she saw at gyms growing up, Dawes says. 

It wasn’t until she started to put her kids into the sport that she realized this is what she needed to do in the place she calls home. 

“I want to raise my kids in Maryland,” Dawes says. “I love the state of Maryland. I do want to expand and do more academies … I hope to move down the county and maybe even expand it further to the DMV area. But it’s not to take business away. It’s really to create a healthy culture, a culture that’s needed in the sport.”