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Olympic Gymnast Dominique Dawes delivers inspiring speech at Phoebe Sumter’s annual Women’s Health Fair

AMERICUS – There were several inspiring, informative and encouraging words spoken to an audience made up of mostly women at the Phoebe Sumter Medical Center’s (PSMC) annual Women’s Health Fair held on Saturday, May 18, in the Storm Dome on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University, but everyone in the building was there to hear one special person: Three-time Olympic Gymnast Dominique Dawes.

Dawes competed in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic games as a member of the 1996 Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team, but is most remembered for being a part of the team that won America’s first Women’s Olympic Team gold medal at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. During those Olympic games, Dawes won a bronze medal in the Individual Floor Exercise, but fell in the floor exercise during the Individual All-Around competition. That fall knocked Dawes down to 19th place in that particular competition.

As she spoke to the crowd gathered in the Storm Dome, it was that setback that Dawes wanted them to focus on because, in her words, it was that setback that shaped her into the person that she is today.

Since her Olympic career ended, Dawes has traveled around the country as a motivational speaker sharing her personal philosophy, which includes her motto “D-3” – Determination, Dedication and Desire.

This is the Olympic gold medal that Dawes won as a member of the 1996 US Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team that won gold in the team competition at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. It was the first time in history that the women’s gymnastics team won gold in the team competition.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Before Dawes spoke, a video of her floor routine that earned her the bronze medal at the 1996 Olympic games was shown to the audience, but she wanted them to see the video of the event in which she fell. That video could not be shown due to technical difficulties.

Nevertheless, it was that setback that Dawes wanted the audience to think about. “The fall at the Olympic games, for me, was one of the most painful experiences as an athlete,” Dawes said. “I spoke briefly to the Sumter County gymnasts earlier and I told them that they need to write down their goals. “Dawes went on to encourage those in the audience to get a pen and paper and write down their goals as well. “There’s something very powerful about getting a pen and paper and writing it down. It’s almost like you’re etching it in stone. Write down your goals,” She said.

Dawes went on to say that when she was 11 years old, she wrote down in her diary that she wanted to compete in the Olympics. In order to make that a reality, she had to change her attitude and her work ethic, but according to Dawes, the very event that made her into the person that she is today was not part of her plans. “Not once did I write down that I wanted to fall in the Georgia Dome in front of 50,000 people. I was reading a sports business journal the other day, and it said that 3.5 billion people globally were watching those Olympic games. That moment shaped me more in my athletic career than my wins,” She said.

Dominique Dawes speaks with the Sumter County gymnastics team before her speech at the Women’s Health Fair.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Dawes went on to say that when that happened to her as a 19-year-old, she remembered being embarrassed and feeling as if she humiliated herself. “I forgot the fact that there was a gold medal that I had won with my team that was sitting on my dresser at a fraternity house at Emory University where we were staying,” She said. “We stayed in a frat house so we could focus, train and get the job done. My team was expected to win gold and make history. That was our job. It wasn’t fun and games. It was work. It was business.”

Dawes went on to say that her parents instilled in her the values of hard work and sacrifice. “I was never told that I was anything special, but my parents showed me the importance of sacrifice and work ethic,” Dawes said. “When I knew that I could stick it out and be that professional athlete, make it to another Olympic games and be a part of making history, that was something that I felt I wanted to commit to.”

Before the 1996 Olympics, no US women’s gymnastics team had ever won the gold medal in the team competition. Dawes said that after accepting a scholarship to Stanford University in 1994, a voice inside her told her that she should attempt to make it to another Olympic games and be a professional athlete in the sport of gymnastics. She decided to do that, but falling during the floor exercise competition was not part of her plans.

“I want to harp on that (the fall) because the adults know this and some of the young people know this too: life has a lot of pain,” Dawes said. “I want you to start seeing those painful moments in your life as if they have a much greater purpose.”

Dominique Dawes speaks with Dr. Janice Beckford before her presentation before the audience at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center’s Women’s Health Fair.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Dawes went on to say that she came from a broken household full of a lot of abuse and a lot of pain, and that gymnastics was her safe haven. She also mentioned that her gymnastics coach saw something great in her that no one else saw. “Gymnastics became my second home,” Dawes said. “Without that pain of what I went through in that household, I would not be standing here before all of you today.” She went on to explain to the audience that the pain she went through growing up in a broken household was for a purpose and that the pain and hardships that those in the audience are going through also serves a purpose for each of them in their lives.

Dawes challenged those in the audience to find out what that purpose is and what they can learn from the challenges that they go through. “Find out how you can gain from that loss,” Dawes said.

Dawes went on to explain that when bad things happen to people, they tend to blame someone else or something else for their pain. At the 1996 Olympic games, she was no different.

“When I fell at the 1996 Olympic games, the first thing that I did was point the finger. It was someone else’s fault. When we fail or things are hard or painful, this person did something to cause this. I remember pointing the finger first at the floor”, Dawes said. “There are springs under that floor mat. Where I jumped, that one little area was probably missing a spring.”

The point that Dawes was trying to make to the audience was that it is easy to point the finger. “We can go through our minds as to how many things or people or places caused this pain in our lives, but it won’t resolve anything until you take the time and recognize what you can learn from this painful experience,” Dawes said.

“It was through that failure that I was able to wake up and I remember taking a very long period of time to say ‘This pain is for a purpose.’ At the end of the day, life is full of a lot of losses and until we start to embrace those painful moments in life and turn those negatives around into a positive, we will be sitting in a lifetime of a pity party.”

Dawes went on to say that she could have easily given up after that fall at the Olympics, but she decided to pick herself up and she exhorted the audience to do the same regarding their situations. “You’ve got to pick yourself up and make that concerted effort to learn from those painful moments in life,” Dawes said.

Dawes went on to say that at any stage in life, there is always an opportunity for growth. “The minute you stop growing is the minute you stop living,” Dawes said. “I want you to have confidence, have a healthy self-esteem and love yourself. I went through many years of not loving myself, many years of wishing that my parents had taught me how to love myself better. You have to love yourself, but at the same time, you have to take the ego out of it.” Dawes went on to explain that the only reason the US Women’s Gymnastics Team won gold in 1996 was because they got rid of their personal egos and concentrated on what they could accomplish collectively. “That was the one and only Olympic team that I was a part of that was talented enough to make history,” Dawes said. “We knew how special we were, but it was when we were in Greensboro, NC training for the Olympics together as a team that we recognized that this goal that we have is bigger than ourselves. This goal that we have will not be accomplished if we all think that we are so great. Collectively, we all decided that we might be great, but we’re greater together. If you want to achieve something great with the people around you, remember, you might be great, but you are greater with them.”

Dawes went on to say that the lessons that she learned in athletics are the same lessons that she applies today as a wife and a mother. She mentioned to the audience that if she were to let her ego get in the way in her marriage, it would know longer be a marriage. “It doesn’t matter how committed I am. It will not be a healthy team unit and it will not be a healthy marriage,” Dawes said. “You have to choose to take your ego out of it. Ego is not confidence. Ego will not help anything in life.”

Dawes went on to say that there are many ways to fail in life and that two of those ways are to strive for perfection and to compare one’s self to others. “My Olympic journey was a very fruitful journey,” Dawes said. “It was only a fruitful journey because of my faith and my ability to be able to touch and inspire lives.” However, Dawes went on to say that there a lot of unhealthy things that she learned during her Olympic journey that she has had to correct. The biggest unhealthy thing Dawes learned along that journey was striving for perfection. She talked about a moment during practice where she performed flawlessly on the balance beam. She thought she had performed flawlessly, but a coach told her that her pinky finger was out of place. That correction from the coach inspired Dawes to try to be absolutely perfect, which, she admits, wasn’t and isn’t the right thing to strive for.

“In life today, you do not want to be focused on imperfection. You do not want to be focused on things that you have to correct each and every day,” Dawes said. “You do not want to be focused on your own flaws or other people’s flaws. Your life will be miserable and you will make other people’s lives miserable.”

Dawes went on to say that the sport of gymnastics wired her to try to strive for perfection, but that her husband has helped her correct that thinking. “If you focus on being perfect and you focus on other people’s flaws, you will fail and you will be miserable,” She said. Dawes encouraged the audience to appreciate the beauty in the world and to not compare themselves to others. “The sport of gymnastics taught me to compare and criticize myself,” Dawes said. “If you walk around comparing yourself to someone else, you will fail. You will be miserable. Learn to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness that each and every one of us have. If you constantly walk around comparing, you will never be happy and you will never be satisfied.”

The Southland Lady Raider basketball team is honored by Mayor Blount with a special proclamation at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center’s Women’s Health Fair for making it all the way to the GISA Final Four.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Dawes encouraged those in the audience to accept the things about themselves they cannot change. However, she went on to say that people should try to change the things they can change, such as attitude, work ethic, perception of self and of others.

Once Dawes was done with her presentation, there was a time for those in the audience to ask questions. One gentleman asked Dawes what inspired her to get into gymnastics. Dawes replied that her mother took both her and her sister to gymnastics. “There was a mall here and a gym here,” Dawes said. “My mom loved to shop so it worked out perfectly for her. It really wasn’t like I saw the 1984 Olympics or was inspired by Nadia Comaneci. I didn’t know anything about the sport of gymnastics, but I had the perfect physique for it. I was very short and I still am. I was muscular and I was a daredevil. When I first stepped into a gymnastics gym, I fell in love right away. I always felt like I fit in and I was at home. I give thanks for my mom because she knew that I needed a positive outlet, but I don’t think she thought I would have the career that I had.”

Another question for Dawes was what does she like to do in her free time? Dawes replied that she is very much home with her children. “That’s very important to me,” Dawes said. “If I could do anything right now, it would probably be sleep. No one prepares you for parenthood. I should have really enjoyed sleep before being a mom, but during my spare time, it really is spending time with my kids.”

Dominique Dawes poses with the Sumter County Gymnastics Team.
Submitted Photo

One Sumter County gymnast told Dawes that she is working on a certain skill in gymnastics, but is having trouble mastering it. She asked Dawes how she kept going even when she was struggling during her career. Dawes asked the gymnast how old she is. The gymnast replied “12.” Dawes responded by saying that any gymnast or any other athlete who has big goals will fall, get up, fall again and get up again. “When you’re 12 years old and it’s up to just you, you will quit.” Dawes then took the time to exhort parents to never allow their kids to quit. “I would have quit if it were left up to me,” Dawes said. “In my coach’s gym, quitting was not an option and I’m very thankful for her. The road was hard. I wanted to go cry to my parents, who wouldn’t have listened to me anyway. As a kid, you want to quit. Parents, kids will quit when you allow them to quit. Don’t allow your kids to quit! Your planting that seed that says giving up is ok and it’s not. Don’t let your kids give up on their dreams and on their goals.”

In addition to Dawes being the keynote speaker, Dr. Janice Beckford spoke to the women about Diabetes. PSMC dieticians Ashley Smith and Kim Hicks gave tips and pointers on how to eat right for all stages of life, and Dr. Kristin Collier went over the various different tests that women need to take to detect things such as breast cancer, skin cancer and Colorectal Cancer.

During the morning, women took advantage of free health screenings, such as checking for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol. That went from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.

After Dawes was finished with the Q&A session, Americus Mayor Barry Blount made a proclamation proclaiming the week of May13-18 as Hospital Week and May 18 as Dominique Dawes Day. State Representative Freddie Powell-Sims also made a special proclamation to Dawes. Mayor Blount recognized the Southland Lady Raider basketball team for the accomplishment of getting to the GISA State Semifinals, and there was a performance by the Sumter County gymnastics team.