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Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes is turning pain into purpose

The Silver Spring native opens up about the 'toxic and unhealthy culture' she endured within USA Gymnastics. Now, she's creating a positive environment for gymnasts.

WASHINGTON — We know her well. Silver Spring, Maryland, native, Dominique Dawes is an Olympic gold medalist, but says being one of the sport’s best came at a price.

“While I might have reached the pinnacle in the sport, it was a very harmful environment, physically, verbally, emotionally and it’s not worth the sacrifice, it’s not worth the cost,” the 3-time Olympic gymnast said.

In 1996, Dawes became the first Black gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal, but says the sacrifices weren’t worth the reward. Dawes spent year enduring what she calls a “toxic, unhealthy and abusive culture” within the sport of gymnastics.

“They rewarded coaches for abusive behavior, for physical, verbal and emotional abusive behavior, that behavior resulted in us winning a gold in 1996 and making history, however, it’s not worth the cost,” Dawes said.

Only once did she speak out about what she was going through. She was 12, and quickly learned that talking about the toxic culture came with consequences.

“I opened up to one of my teammates there and shared with her what I was going through, and I remember regretting it because of the ramifications, let’s just say, that I was forced to endure as a very young person, and I remember not wanting to speak up to my parents at all,” Dawes said.

Dawes stayed silent for years and was groomed to believe the unhealthy environment she was subjected to was normal.

"I remember the times where I would hide in a bathroom for a whole 5-hour training session, because I was too terrified to go out and work on a particular move, and to know that a young person’s fear and emotional health was completely ignored, completely ignored, breaks my heart," Dawes said.

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But now, as a 44-year-old mother of four, coach and owner of the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy in Clarksburg, Maryland, she is determined to turn her pain into a greater purpose, to change the culture of this sport for future generations.

“What gives me the courage today to speak out is thinking that I am standing up and protecting my own four children and today’s and tomorrow’s generation of gymnasts,” Dawes said.

Despite her and many others speaking out in recent years about abuse within the sport, she says it is still happening today.

“There’s a lot of unhealthy people still involved in the sport, and that’s why there does need to be an internal investigation of USA Gymnastics. They need to be protecting those athletes, from physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse and sexual abuse. So many people don’t want to put their kids in the sport of gymnastics because of that unhealthy experience. I want to change what the sport of gymnastics offers to young girls and boys, and that’s why I’m so passionate to take the pain I went through and drive it into this greater purpose and this deeper passion,” Dawes said.

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