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Making History Was Secondary To Success For Gymnastics Pioneer Dominique Dawes

By Doug Williams | March 24, 2016, 10:22 a.m. (ET)

During her gymnastics career, Dominique Dawes was always too busy vaulting forward to take a step back.

She never understood the significance of what she accomplished as one of the best gymnasts in U.S. history — and the first African-American gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal — until long after she retired.

The woman known as “Awesome Dawesome” to her teammates over a career that spanned three Olympic Games, four Olympic medals and a national all-around championship said she didn’t fully understand she’d inspired other young African-American girls until they told her years later.

“Being there on that stage and having young girls see a diverse team is what allows that sport to be seen as an opportunity for them,” she told a reporter in 2008.

Dawes first stepped onto that Olympic stage in 1992 as a member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in Barcelona, Spain. In helping the U.S. women win a team bronze, she and Betty Okino became the first African-Americans to win an Olympic gymnastics medal.

Dominique Dawes competes on the balance beam at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Four years later in Atlanta, Dawes was one of the “Magnificent Seven” who earned the team gold, the first American women’s team to do so. She also won the individual bronze in floor routine. It was the first individual gymnastics medal won by an African-American.

Dawes made her third Olympic team at 2000 at Sydney, where the U.S. placed fourth. She and her U.S. teammates were awarded the bronze medal 10 years later, however, when the International Olympic Committee stripped third-place China of its medal for using an under-age athlete.

Dawes spent 10 years on the U.S. national team. In 1994 she was the U.S. all-around champion while also winning all four individual event titles. The same year she was a team silver medalist at the world championships. In 1996 she won a bronze medal on the beam and was a finalist in the uneven bars at the world championships.

Dawes, who was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, began taking gymnastics lessons with coach Kelli Hill when she was 6. Remarkably, Hill remained Dawes’ coach through her retirement in 2000. When Dawes was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2009, she said she owed Hill everything.

“She has been my role model since I was 6 and is still my role model at 32,” said Dawes in her speech. “I stand here today accepting this award on her behalf.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.