Dominique Margaux Dawes was the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics and the first black person to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. [Photo: Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com CC BY-SA 2.0]
BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief
Have you ever tried something and failed? In private, such disappointments may be a bit easier to stomach. Imagine the courage it takes to stand up after falling in public arenas and then still trying it again.
Meet Dominique Margaux Dawes-Thompson, affectionately known by millions as “Awesome Dawesome.” Born on Nov. 20, 1976, she made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics, as well as, the first black person to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.
Unmarried at the time, Dawes was a 10-year member of the U.S. national gymnastics team, the 1994 U.S. all-around senior National Champion, a three-time Olympian, a World Championship silver and bronze medalist and a member of the gold-medal-winning team “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where she was the Olympic bronze medalist on floor exercise.
Although Dawes was a crowd-pleasing, elite gymnast, she did not become an all-around gymnast until 1993. At the 1993 World Championships, Dawes positioned herself superbly to win it all. A surprise to most, she was leading in points after three events. Instead of playing it safe, Dawes risked it all by performing a vault with a maximum point value of 10.00.
Her first vault was successful. She slipped, however, and fell on the landing of her second vault, and immediately tears welled in her eyes. She did not have to do such a hard vault to accomplish her goal but chose to do it anyway.
Dawes knew she could do the vault. By completing it the first time, she showed the world that she could do it. Still, at that moment, she failed to do it a second time, and all watched her drop from first place to fourth overall.
Met by her coach as she exited the floor with a hug and these words of comfort: “When did you ever think you would be in that position? You have to be happy with yourself. Come on. Be happy. Stand up and wave.”
Pained yet obedient, Dawes did stand. She straightened her posture, turned, and acknowledged the audience with a wave. In response, they showed their love and appreciation by giving her a standing ovation. Dawes continued in the competition and won two silver medals on bars and beam.
Interestingly, Dawes found herself in the exact same position at the 1994 Worlds. The only difference was that her mistake came on the first vault, where she over-rotated and hurled forward into a somersault. Her low score dropped her from first to fifth place. At the end of the competition, she was out of medal contention.
After that fall, Dawes went on to dominate the National Championships by placing first in the all-around, as well as all four event finals. That had not been done since 1969. In addition, Dawes led the American team to a silver medal at the World Team Championships while posting the third-highest all-around score in the process.
At the 1996 U.S. National Championships Dawes, sweep all four event finals for the second time. By doing so, she became the only gymnast ever to accomplish this feat twice.
Dawes has gained countless awards and recognition. Among them, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2009, the USA Olympic Hall of Fame (with the Magnificent Seven) in 2008, and was named the Sportsperson of the Year by USA Gymnastics in 1994.
Sometimes, valuable lessons are learned as a result of falling in public places. One of which is to locate the courage to stand up and wave. You never know; history may be made with a dedicated coach and an appreciative audience.
Keisha Bell is an attorney, author and public servant.