Josh Dixon competes at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials on June 28, 2012 in San Jose, Calif.
The 2009 NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships were about to end in jubilation for Stanford. Another magnificent string of routines by the determined young men in red and white would give the Cardinal its first NCAA title in 14 years, and excitement at the possibility was running high.
In the midst of the hoopla, the situation was more complicated for sophomore Josh Dixon. Just 19, Dixon was disappointed about the performance he’d given in the preliminary round of the championships, which qualified the team to the Super Six team finals and placed the top individual gymnasts in apparatus finals. More of the same during the Super Six, Dixon realized, could make the difference between Stanford winning the title and not achieving everything it had worked so hard for.
If we lose, it will be my fault, he remembers thinking.
The story has a happy ending. Dixon did well in team finals to help Stanford win the coveted NCAA title, and the team celebration was a happy one. But as he sat in the stands the next day watching the NCAA’s top gymnasts perform in the individual finals, Dixon was well aware things might have gone the other way.
I’m better than this, he remembers thinking.
“I felt like I wasn’t holding my weight and I was not prepared. When we won, it was more relief, because I was not prepared to accept the weight of that responsibility,” Dixon recalled a decade later in a recent interview with TeamUSA.org. “At the time I was kind of relying on talent and not forging your way through a bad day. I still remember I did not know how to handle or accept bad days of training. It was either perfect or nothing. I didn’t understand the amount of work needed to be really good at refining and developing your craft.”
What Dixon came to understand was that realizing his potential meant accepting himself and changing his strategy.
That year, he felt “a different weight on my shoulders — of being pretty closeted and not knowing how to navigate that and or not accepting the fact that it’s OK to be good and it’s OK to do your thing.”
In sport and in life, Dixon has often found himself in the minority. He and his two older sisters, all born to the same Japanese mother but different fathers, were adopted as babies. His adopted father is white, and his adopted mom is Japanese too.
“I’m literally the only black person in my family,” he said. “[My parents] had a double-time duty of protecting me from outright discrimination, first of all because of the funny looks our family would get when we were younger, either, ‘This is really cool and interesting,’ or ‘Oh, what’s up here? What’s going on?’”
Dixon grew up in Silicon Valley, where the emphasis was on education and extracurriculars, and most of the time he was not singled out. Just once, Dixon remembers, he and his father were refused service in a California diner because of the color of his skin. Years passed before he fully grasped why.
Even in gymnastics, the taller, long-limbed Dixon was different. Elite hopefuls tend to be short and muscle-bound, but his club coaches, and later Stanford assistant coach JD Reive, recognized the potential in his underdeveloped physicality and changed up his workouts accordingly, trusting that he would come into his own.
By the time he was a senior at Stanford, Dixon’s situation had changed. The positive drilling, mental and physical, of Reive and later 2004 Olympic silver medalist Brett McClure got him to tap into a different mindset. At the same time, he figured out the NCAA Rubik’s cube of school, sports, who he was and used what he’d learned to bridge the world of being a kid in a gym to being an adult training for the U.S. national team.
Before Dixon’s senior season in 2011, McClure joined the Stanford men’s team as an assistant. McClure challenged Dixon to stop living in his own head all the time.
“You have to start by starting,” McClure, today the U.S. men’s high-performance director, told him bluntly.
So Dixon leveled up. He began coming into the gym and doing morning sessions on his own so he’d be ready to knock things out during the team workouts in the afternoon. He also came out as gay to his family and teammates.
Stanford won the NCAA title that year too, and Dixon underscored the team effort with a personal best in the all-around, then closed out his NCAA career by partaking in event finals on floor exercise and high bar. In his training, he settled into a routine that would eventually propel him all the way to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
His uniqueness makes a beacon for inclusivity. He is doubly in the minority — African American and gay — but when he attends meets today it is as a role model rather than an outcast.
“I’ve been at some Future Stars events in predominantly minority areas. Parents will come up to me,” said Dixon. “People have never seen this many black gymnasts, and (some say), ‘My son would tell me, ‘I want to be like Josh, because there are three black guys on the national team and I can be one of them.’ It’s something I never realized or took in that communities and young athletes are taking in…visibility matters.”
The same goes with sexual orientation.
“(I hear), ‘My son was being teased for being almost girl-like’ or whatever, and (I can say), ‘Hey son, there are gay athletes on the senior most athletes of this team, so it’s OK to be yourself.’”
Since retiring from elite gymnastics in 2016, Dixon has dabbled in politics, working on Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s, D-Nev., election campaign in 2016, then serving on her United States Senate staff during her first year in Washington. Though currently employed in the private sector, he doesn’t rule out a return to politics one day.
“It’s a heavy point of introspection and reflection,” Dixon said in a nod to current events. “What do we do next, because at the end of day, bottom line, it’s voter registration and voting. Systemic change comes from turning advocacy into action and action into impactful policy. Those individuals in elected positions are the voice of the people. End of day, it doesn’t sound sexy and drilling down on policy isn’t for the faint of heart, you’ve got to vote, you’ve got to be active, and we’ve got to get people in office to make these systemic changes that have shown their deleterious effects for far too long.’”
In the meantime, Dixon has found another way to contribute. He’s been able to utilize his platform on social media channels to stimulate a creative knack for branding and marketing while contributing to a scholarship fund at his old high school in San Jose, California.
His downtime, once consecrated to gymnastics, is now devoted to another love in sports: tennis, which he finds one of the most graceful athletic pursuits.
“I’ve always appreciated the finesse and almost ballet-like nature of any sport,” said Dixon. “I just happened to be pretty good at gymnastics. When something looks so peaceful and easy, that’s actually one of the hardest things to do.”