Dawes' golden gleam hasn't worn

A dozen years after she and her teammates captured gold and America's hearts, the Silver Spring native is still inspiring

Beijing 2008

August 03, 2008|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

Magnificent.

A dozen years after Dominique Dawes and her six teammates on the U.S. women's gymnastics squad had the nickname hung on them like the Olympic gold medal they won, people still bestow it on her.

At 31, she still looks, well, magnificent. Slim and well-muscled, she appears as though she could still fit into the red-white-and-blue leotard she wore in helping the Magnificent Seven collect the team gold medal and win an individual bronze medal in floor exercise in Atlanta.

"Fit into it? No, I can't. I could maybe squeeze into it," she says, laughing and drawing out the word squeeze. "Besides, the Smithsonian has it."

The medals - two from 1996 and a team bronze from the 1992 Olympics - Dawes has kept.

"They travel with me to certain engagements. I always like to end [clinics] by letting the kids hold it and have their pictures taken with it," she says. "The gold medal? The parents are fighting with the kids over getting a photo. It's just exciting to see people's reaction to seeing an Olympic medal.

"I still get stopped by a number of fans, and they thank me for the memories, they thank me for the good times."

The Magnificent Seven - Dawes, Shannon Miller, Kerri Strug, Dominique Moceanu, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps and Amanda Borden - were inducted this year into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame for a performance that rivals the "miracle" hockey team from the 1980 Winter Games. (The induction ceremony will be aired today at 1:30 p.m. on NBC).

In addition to clinics, Dawes coaches and gives motivational talks. She still lives in Silver Spring and loves being a doting aunt to her 4-year-old niece, who loves the fact that Dawes has been on Sesame Street.

As she gives interviews this day in the Montgomery County gym where she grew up, little faces in the lunchroom press against the glass, and tiny hands wave.

"I don't think those little kids who are waving and are excited were even born in 2000, when I was in my last Olympics," she says, waving back. "They don't know Dominique Dawes. They've heard their parents talk about what I've done and my achievements and the dreams I had become reality. I think they're excited to see me in a sport in which they now participate."

But even Dawes realizes how magnificent the Magnificent Seven were in Atlanta in July 1996 with the team competition on the line.

Although the Soviet Union and its gymnastics juggernaut performed for the final time at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, winning a 10th consecutive team gold, both Russia and two-time world champion Romania were considered powerful competitors.

Russia led after the compulsories, but just barely. The U.S. squad shrugged it off and carefully built a lead after three rotations. The final apparatus for the Russians was the floor exercise. The Americans had the vault remaining.

Four of the seven Americans - Dawes, Miller, Chow and Phelps - put up good numbers. But Moceanu, 14, struggled on her two vaults, leaving it to Strug, a 4-foot-9 vault specialist.

Strug stumbled on her landing and fell on her backside. She felt something snap in her ankle and had to be helped to the sidelines.

U.S. team leaders erroneously thought they needed Strug's second vault to win the medal. So Strug vaulted and stuck a one-footed landing before collapsing in pain.

The U.S. team not only won its first gold medal, it also won the hearts of sports fans.

"Kerri Strug's vault just made that experience so much more memorable. ... So many women and women's teams had already won and made history and then ours stood out because of the triumphant end and Kerri Strug's vault," Dawes says. "You've got to be thankful that moment happened because that's what made it stand out from the other gold medals."

This year, the U.S. women will try to earn the first team gold on foreign soil.

"That's something hard to do, but these girls are capable of doing it," Dawes says. "It's an amazing group of girls. Full of personality. Full of talent. The sky is theirs for the taking. They have the ability to win gold. There's many things that come into play, such as pressure and anticipation and dealing with the environment. However, these girls are quite experienced. This is one of the most experienced teams going into the Olympic Games."

Dawes will be at the Beijing Games, working for Yahoo Sports as a journalist.

"I wouldn't give myself that title yet," she says, shaking her head. "It's like someone getting into the sport of gymnastics for, like, a month and going, 'I'm a gymnast.' No, you're not. You have to go through the bumps and bruises and learn a little bit more and become a little bit more accomplished at it."

Dawes is single, "but I'm not desperate," she says, laughing. "My friends say I'm a serial dater."

"I think things will get better when I finally get things together in my personal life. Everyone loves to talk about my professional life, and that's fine. But I think what's going to be most fulfilling for me is to be a wife and a mother someday. I think that will beat any Olympic achievement or any professional achievement."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

For a video of Dominique Dawes and a list of other Maryland Olympians, go to

www.baltimoresun.com/olympics

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