Student Life

Dominique Dawes Q & A: Why she was fearful of motivational speaking, retiring at 23 and valuing the Olympic experience

Senior reporter Sean Bradley sat down with 1996 Olympic gold medal winner Dominique Dawes to get the inside scoop on her life as an Olympic gymnast.

Question: Since you retired from competition, you’ve taken on motivational speaking. What were some of the reasons you decided to do motivational speaking? How long?

Answer: “I actually started motivational speaking after my second Olympic games in 1996. I’d become a professional athlete. I forewent my scholarship to Stanford University and decided to make money. Soon after the Olympic games, after winning a gold medal, you get hired a lot for speaking engagements. I did not think of that. I didn’t like people a great deal. I’m very uncomfortable, or at least I was, in larger groups of individuals. When my agents initially approached me, when I was 19 years old, and said ‘We have these speaking engagements lined up for you’, I was like ‘No, thanks.’ He quickly let me know that he would pretty much fire himself from working for me if I did not accept these things because this is how Olympic athletes get their story out and make a living. I remember taking my first speaking engagement. It was a 10-minute long speech and it was the longest 10 minutes of my life. I will say this: anyone who saw me in that first speech probably never thought this would be something I would continue to do 16 years later.”

Q: What are some of the things you like to touch on when speaking to students? Do your speeches vary when you talk to sports teams as opposed to students?

A: “You know, they’re different. Though the stories are the same. Maybe I’ll emphasize a point of a story a little bit more or leave out certain aspects of a story. Each speaking engagement is unique. I always speak from passion. I’m not using notes. I usually don’t because then I find myself standing up there reading and I get bored listening to myself read, so of course the audience is, too. But I just like to speak from the heart and share what helped me, what hurt me in my 18 year journey in the sport of gymnastics. What helps me and hinders me today, even as a 35-year-old businesswoman and I hope that from my tidbits people can take away something that will help them walk the walk in their lives and reach their full potential.”

Q: Do you have the same passion for motivational speaking that you did when you were competing? Does it give you the same feelings as when you competed? What are some of those feelings?

A: “I do. That was something I was fearful of when I retired in 2000. I wasn’t sure what my next passion would be in life. I loved the sport of gymnastics. I started it when I was six. I retired when I was 23 or 24. I never thought I would find something else that I loved just as much and actually, was almost just as good at. I don’t think I’m Olympic-level when it comes to speaking yet but I’m pretty darn good. It just took a lot of work. After the ’96 Olympics, my first speaking engagement — it took me six years to realize that this is something that I’m passionate about. Something that’s truly impacting people’s lives in a positive way. And the cool thing is: now I don’t have to wear a leatard. I can impact people in a positive way by my words and trying my best to be a good role model.”

Q: You have accomplished so much in your 18 year career as a gymnast. What was it like the very last time you competed? What were some of the thoughts going through head?

A: “A lot of people do not recall, don’t ask about my last Olympic games. I was 23 years old. Definitely over the hill. I had arthritis in my shoulders. I was on Celebrex. It was a tough time in my career but I came back for my third and final Olympic games to say farewell to the fans. They had meant so much to me. They were a huge supporter for me throughout my ups and downs in the sport. For my final competition in Sydney, Australia, it was bittersweet. I was thrilled that I could say goodbye to the fans and bitter that I was saying goodbye to the fans. The crowd would no longer be cheering. It’s a difficult transition. It’s a diffcult farewell for any professional athlete, for any Olympic athlete, to walk away from something that was huge to their identity. That was tough for me but I also knew it was time for me to hang up the leotard.”

Q: Why did you decide to retire at the time in your life that you did?

A: “I sucked. It was time to walk away. I think it gets to a point though I made the Olympic team, I wasn’t at the level that I used to be and it really was time for me to close that chapter of my life and to open another chapter. A lot of athletes, I’m not saying that I did this, they will continue to stay in the sport. They will continue to have comebacks because of the fear of the unknown, what’s next. It got to a point where physically, I wasn’t where I needed to be and psychologically my mind was already checked out and trying to figure out what’s next for Dominique Dawes.”

Q: How do you look back on your career as the years go by?

A: “You know, it’s difficult to not look back and think about gymnastics. I was just talking with my fiancee about it. He’s like ‘Well, you’re gonna always think about gymnastics because that’s your job still today, to relive the past.’ There’s pros and cons to it. It keeps you somewhat stuck in the past because I’m thinking about what I did 16 years ago and winning a gold or my final Olympics 12 years ago. It makes me wonder ‘Is what I’m doing today impactful enough? Am I doing enough?’ and being that I’m a strong believer and that I try to not only talk the talk, I try my best to walk the walk. I don’t compare myself to yesterday with regards to how the world perceives my successes. I look at who I am as an individual when it comes to my character and if I’m better off with regards to, lets say, kindness or compassion or respect or being more responsible. If I’m better than than I was last year, then I know I’ve done something good and I know that I’ve fulfilled something. It’s always trying to be better than I was yesterday and not comparing to what I was to when I wore a leotard.”

Q: What are some of the ideas or aspirations you want to pass on to upcoming gymnasts?

A: “I like to encourage people to recognize how powerful their mind is. It’s something that helped me tremendously in my sport but its also hindered tremendously in my sport. I talk about how your mind can truly control your body. How your mind make or break an opportunity in your life. The cool thing about this is: we have control of our thoughts. We have control over the negativity that comes in and goes out. We have control over changing negative words into positive words. We have the ability to choose to believe in our dreams and ourselves and to push out anything that’s going to deter us from reaching our full potential. That’s the message that I always like to relay to younger audiences as well as to adult audiences because even adults struggle with believing in themselves. Even adults struggle with believing and being content with their lives and thinking that they can do no more. I wanna change that and I know the first place change it is right up in their mind.”

Q: What are your thoughts on the results of the gymnastics results in London this year?

A: “I was so proud of those girls. I was in London the whole time and even for two weeks after. They are known as the ‘Fierce Five.’ They were the second women’s gymnastics team ever to win a gold medal in the team competition. They dominated their competition. I will say, I was a little bored. It seemed like they were so far away though I think the Romanians were giving them a little bit of a run for their money and the Russians and the Chinese were there as well. They dominated. It was good to see them win the gold medal. I was so proud of Gabby Douglas. She’s a great, not only physically talented individual, but a good overall, all-around kid. I love hearing her story and I love seeing she’s reaping the benefits of her hard work, her sacrifice and her commitment.”

Q: Do you maybe see a bit of them in you?

A: “Oh no. I tell everyone they’re better than me. Always. I think it’s because of my own experience but I don’t want to be that old athlete that’s like ‘Oh, if I was in the meet, I would’ve won gold.’ No, I want to allow this young generation to shine. I had my time. I enjoyed it. I reaped many benefits from it. These girls have worked hard. I love seeing that Gabby has surpassed what I could’ve ever done. Thrilled for her. Thrilled for Jordyn having that gold medal. Thrilled for McKayla Maroney making vault finals. Thrilled for Aly Raisman winning a gold medal as well as a bronze medal in the balance beam and a gold on floor. These girls are great. What I did was 16 years ago and that was history.”

Q: What do you value most about your time competing in the Olympics? Was it the friendships you made, the goals you achieved or something else?

A: “I don’t think I started really valuing the Olympic experience until I was no longer there as an Olympian. It was not until the 2008 Olymipic games in Beijing, and I was doing work for Yahoo! Sports, that I truly realized the Olympics was so much bigger than myself. I think as a young person, you are focused on yourself anyway and you are inately selfish. For my first Olympic games, it was all about me obviously. Second Olympic games: me and my time. Third Olympic games: Me and my farewell to the fans. And then I didn’t go to 2004 but I went to 2008 and I sat there for opening ceremonies, the first one I’d ever been to, because I couldn’t go before because of training and I looked at this arena. All these athletes came marching out and every athlete got an amazing applause. Athletes you’ve never heard of. Sports you’ve never heard of. Countries you’ve never heard of. They’re all applauded. They’ve all worked hard to experience this one moment. I realized it’s not about Michael Phelps. It’s not about Kobe Bryant. It’s not about the women’s gymnastics team. It’s about the whole nation, the world coming together and that’s what I think I really realized that it was something special I was a part of.”

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