Dominique Dawes
Dominique Dawes Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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When Dominique Dawes read about Simone Bilesdecision to withdraw from the women’s artistic gymnastics individual and team all-around finals at the Tokyo Olympics, she was transported back to a time where she felt the same pressures while competing at the Olympics decades earlier. Biles, widely considered to be the best ever in her sport, decided to withdraw from the finals after her vault event on July 27. Biles later said she had the “twisties” and got lost in the air. In a series of Instagram stories on Friday, she explained that she “chose to not continue team competition in jeopardizing losing a medal (of any color) for the girls/US … also for my own safety and health.”

Her decision prompted a discussion about elite athletes being more open about their mental health, with many athletes coming to Biles’ defense in the face of criticism from those who claim she quit. “For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit,” Biles wrote on Instagram. “My mind & body are simply not in sync … I don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface. Nor do I have to explain why I put health first. Physical health is mental health.”

Dawes can understand and relate to the stress that Biles has faced more than most. The 44-year-old Silver Spring native won four Olympic medals, including a gold medal in the women’s artistic gymnastics all-around team competition at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. There, she made history as the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. In recent years, Dawes has described the pain she endured while training to excel in artistic gymnastics and her desire to prevent future generations from experiencing the same trauma. She started the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy to provide a safe and healthy environment for kids learning gymnastics.

When she’s not in the gym, she’s an executive producer of a gymnastics docuseries, sports investor in the Washington Spirit, and also a mother to four young kids, a 7-year-old, a 5-year-old, and 3-and-a-half year-old twins. City Paper spoke with Dawes on July 29 about her experiences in the sport, her thoughts on Biles, and the progress the new generation of gymnasts has made. The interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Washington City Paper: What’s it been like for you to see this conversation and to read people’s reactions?

Dominique Dawes: I feel as if I haven’t been talking about it for a couple of days, I feel like I’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now. As you know about the scandal of Larry Nassar in 2016, it really started to open my eyes to the unhealthy culture in the sport of gymnastics and how it really does affect young girls, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, you name it. A year ago, I opened the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy in Clarksburg, Maryland. The reason being is because I wanted to provide a healthier option for young girls that were interested in the sport of gymnastics where there’s quality instruction, and there’s a great deal of compassion and encouragement and empowerment. And it’s not about having kids sacrifice their whole childhood to get this slim chance at making it to an Olympic Games. It’s too much pressure. It’s too much that a young girl gives up. And it really does take a toll on them physically as well as mentally and I do feel as if that’s what we’re seeing in the great Simone Biles. She is already labeled as the GOAT. She has competed with a GOAT on her leotard and [done interviews] with the GOAT [label], that’s just enormous amount of pressure and to have those expectations of leading the squad to a gold medal and then winning a gold medal in the all-around and then the talk was that she would win a number of the individual events, that’s a lot to take on and she’s human. It’ll get you and it’ll show and manifests itself in different ways and could’ve contributed to that mental block that she had on the vault, which I’ve gone through before where you get lost in the air. There’s a spatial awareness disorientation that happens. Today’s gymnasts call it the “twisties.” In the ’90s, we kind of call it balking, you don’t actually finish the skill that you’re actually going for, and it’s very scary. Because you mentally are afraid, you believe that you can get hurt and you feel as if you’ve lost control of your body.

WCP: The conversation surrounding Simone Biles—and I’ve seen you mention Naomi Osaka in previous interviews, as well—is about mental health. With gymnastics specifically, how much of it is mental?

DD: I think 90 percent is mental. Now you of course have to have the physical talent, the work ethic to learn the skill, and then your muscle really does establish a memory and knows how to do the particular gymnastic moves and that’s when you really rely on your mind, also dealing with facing the pressure, blocking out the crowd. The audience lacks in the Olympic Games that these kids are like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t even have a crowd to block out.” That in itself is a distraction. So there’s a lot of factors in the sport, but mental, like the mental aspect, is key. And that was one thing Simone was quoted … she felt like she was battling her mind. And even though there were teammates, I’m sure her coaches, maybe even her family members had said, “You can do this. You got this. Just let it go. You got it,” Simone is aware of her inner voice, which is not always the case for most gymnasts. Back in the ’90s, where we were robots, and our inner voice was muted, and whatever was told of us to do, we did. Just think of Kerri Strug‘s vault going into the 1996 Olympic Games and the final for the team. She’s injured, visibly injured. You see in the audience, [her coach] Béla Károlyi saying, “You can do it.” He’s like, “You will do it.” And she sacrificed her physical body for the betterment, let’s say, of the team and it was viewed as a heroic moment and now many people have said maybe that wasn’t so heroic. Now, I do commend Keri for her courage, but do we really want our young people to be willing to sacrifice their physical and their mental health for an outcome that will not always equate to happiness and fulfillment? And that’s what I love about Simone is she heard her inner voice no matter what people were telling her around her, she said, “No, I don’t want to take that risk.” And she didn’t.

WCP: When you watch the video of her unable to complete the vault she had planned, what was going through your mind? How risky is it to go through with your moves when you have the “twisties”?

DD: It’s extremely risky for you physically. I had never thought about the risks that it takes on you emotionally and mentally, but that contributed to many years and years of tears that I had in the gymnastics gym. When I watched her do a one-and-a-half when she needed to do a two-and-a-half twist on vault, it literally looked like a video game. You could see her look completely disoriented, and then obviously, gravity is going to pull her down and she landed, and thankfully she landed safely. There is a chance that if she did that again, she wouldn’t have landed safely, and it could have resulted in a pretty bad injury. What Simone Biles does out there, and all of these young athletes do out there in gymnastics is unreal. Unreal. And so there is a probability of them getting severely injured. They’re smart enough to know that. They’re 24, they’re not a 12-year-old who’s just going to sacrifice their body and not realize how dangerous this sport is. But it was very heartbreaking to watch her go through that, and then to hear some of her quotes afterwards of just battling with her mind, and she didn’t want to take the risk for her mental or physical health. And she really did feel as if she would jeopardize her team’s chances of even getting on the podium. And that takes courage. And it also takes humility for someone to recognize that and to bow out.

WCP: How would you describe the “twisties”? What are you feeling? Is it specific to the vault or does it happen in other events?

DD: It would be [for] everything. So for a “twisty,” this definition that this generation has, and I completely get it, it would be when you’re twisting and pirouetting your body. So it could be off of the vault when you’re twisting, it could be off the balance beam if you’re twisting into a dismount, off of the bars when you’re twisting, it can even be on the bars when you’re twisting. I used to get lost many times during pirouettes with my hands on the bar, and I had to twist over the bars. And I many times got lost mid-air, when I would do a front dismount and have to twist and do a half out of it. I would just get completely lost in the air, and my coach would always tell me, “Shut off your mind,” like “analysis paralysis” is what she would say. And that’s something that she would try to grill in me. But it’s nearly impossible to shut off your mind. Like if you have a mind, it’s hard to shut it off, even thinking about shutting it off, it’s not shutting you off. And so that is the best way to work through it, but it’s very challenging to not overthink and overanalyze the situation. But it’s if you tried to jump in the air and twist and your body didn’t do what you were intending to do. That’s very much what it feels like.

WCP: I’ve been reading comments from other elite level gymnasts, former Olympians or competitive gymnasts who have come out and been unequivocal in their support and understanding and empathy of Simone. What do you think people should take away from Simone’s decision, and what would you say to her critics who don’t understand why she did this?

DD: I understand that people are going to have their own opinions. I just heard in a previous interview that someone was just like, “Oh, she should put it aside and kind of dealt with her sexual abuse and all of that before Olympic trials and just kind of focused in sucked it up for the Olympic Games.” Trust me, if people could block out the pressure, deal with their abuse, and leave it compartmentalized, everyone would. No one wants to carry life’s pressures, life’s pain, hardships, or insecurities and fears with them. Trust me, if anyone could Just like put it in a box and leave it in the past, they would, but she’s human. And so my advice to the critics is do not judge someone unless you’ve walked in their shoes. And while I have had some similar experiences to what Simone has experienced and is experiencing in life, I still am not Simone. But that’s what I would say to the critics out there: Don’t judge someone else until you’ve walked a lifetime, honestly, in their shoes.

WCP: You can’t understand completely what she’s going through, obviously, but in what ways did this conversation around her decision to withdraw and value her mental health and her own safety put you back in time of when you were competing?

DD: It not only took me back in time to the emotional toll it took on me competing, the physical toll that it took on me to competing, and the social toll it took on me, but it further validated what I’m doing in Clarksburg, Maryland, with the Dominic Dawes Gymnastics and Ninja Academy, with the hopes of opening more in the DMV area. That academy is all about creating a very compassionate and encouraging environment for every little kid that comes through our doors, and it’s not about building champions on the floor. But more importantly, happy, healthy kids, mind, body and soul. And what Simone has had to endure throughout her career, she sacrificed her whole childhood, there’s a huge time commitment. There’s huge physical ramifications, emotional ramifications. She’s the gymnast, and that’s why I loved her latest tweet or post out there where she’s realizing she’s more than about just her achievements, that she’s a special individual just because of who she is. Many Olympians and gymnasts get caught up in this one identity that we have and we don’t think much more. And we think it’s all about the color of the medal that we earned and not about the heart that we entail. And so that’s what I want young people, parents, and families to take away from this is that the journey to get to where she got was an arduous one, and I do not believe it has to be that way. And that’s why I want to be a part of this positive change in the culture of the sport, so that today’s and tomorrow’s generation don’t have to give up so much to maybe get a very small amount.

WCP: You’ve mentioned in the past that these athletes today or in recent years are finding a voice. How much of the conversation around athletes’ mental health has changed since you were an Olympian?

DD: It’s changed tremendously. Number one, you really didn’t hear your inner voice. You’re taught to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. You live a great deal of life and anxiety and fear and control. You didn’t feel as if you had a choice. And you thought that was the only way … the culture to be for you to be built up to be this champion, and then you get to be a champion and you realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It doesn’t equate to happiness. It doesn’t equate to fulfillment, and you feel very lost, and you’re very lonely, because you’re wondering what that next chapter in life. It really felt as if things were over after achieving all I thought I could achieve in the sport of gymnastics. Today’s culture, they are bold, they are courageous, they are vulnerable, and I love that it is no longer taboo to talk about the fact that you’re human, that you are going to have mental setbacks, that you are going to have ups and downs and that you are going to make mistakes in life, and that’s OK. It doesn’t damage you. It doesn’t break you. It really just proves that you’re human.

WCP: Maybe five, 10 years from now we’ll realize how seismic this moment was. What do you think this means for future gymnasts and your kids’ generation?

DD: I think this is a change, a turning point for the sport of gymnastics, for people to open their eyes. I think that’s the problem, what existed in the past was everything was so secretive. People didn’t understand the journey, the sacrifice, the plight of these young girls endure, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to be the executive producer of Golden, a docuseries, where we followed five Olympic hopefuls on the way to talk on the road to Tokyo. And if people watch this, they will feel the anxiety, they will feel a little bit of a control and the intimidation, and I do believe because of the voice and today’s generation of athletes there will be change for these future generations of kids. And they will learn to enjoy the journey because the journey won’t be full of as many abuses.