Three-time Olympian shares her conversion story

Dominique Dawes Dominique Dawes. / Credit: Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy.

Today, Dominique Dawes is a three-time Olympian and Olympic gold medalist. But back in 1996, she was a teenage girl feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders.

“Before the 1996 Olympic games, all of us, we were known as the Magnificent Seven being the first women's team to win gold. And I felt, and I'm sure my other six teammates felt that as well, a great deal of pressure,” Dawes said in an April 8 interview with CNA.

“It was in the Georgia dome, (with) 50,000 people watching. 3.4 billion people, I’ve been told, watching worldwide,” she said. “Prior to marching out...I broke down emotionally. It was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is too much for me. What if I make a mistake now? I'm not ready.’ And this is something I had prepared for for my whole childhood.”

Her team captain, Amanda Borden, knelt down beside her. And together, they prayed. Dawes said that moment of prayer grounded her. It reminded her that God was on her side, even in that moment of fear.

“It was good to have that reminder that I'm not alone... because he is the one that is going to strengthen me, and he is the one that's going to strengthen us,” Dawes said. “I remember when I stood up after that prayer with Amanda, I felt free. I felt light...And we went out, marched out together and we all made history.”

God has been a big part of Dawes’ life for as long as she can remember. She was raised in the Baptist faith. Her mother was a Sunday school teacher.

When Dawes was about nine or ten years old, she left home to live with her coach and pursue gymnastics full time. Her coach wasn’t religious, but Dawes said she clung to her faith.

“The seed that my mom planted in me really took. She sowed a seed that has been one that has kept me grounded, (and) has given me this level of discernment, as I think the spirit has protected me quite a bit in my life and has steered me away from some people and situations that maybe weren't the healthiest for me,” she said.

Once she was old enough to drive, Dawes took ownership of her faith. She began attending an interdenominational church, and was involved in Bible studies and faith conferences.

“(I was) just really seeking peace, joy and happiness,” she said.

Her career in gymnastics had taken off. She was sweeping National Championships and winning her first Olympic medals. But she said she felt something was still missing.

“I never felt as if that completed me,” Dawes said. “I always was on this quest to find that wholeness.”

Her life revolved around gymnastics, which was an incredibly lonely sport for Dawes.

“Especially if you're training for an Olympic game, you sacrifice your whole childhood,” she said. “You are, in my case, training thirty six plus hours a week. It's a full-time job for a child and there is the physical, the emotional, the social, and the psychological mental grind that you go through, day in and day out.”

Dawes would train with teammates, but none of them were training at the same level she was. She told CNA that she found comfort in Christ.

“I spoke a great deal to Christ, and just asking for support or crying out,” Dawes said. “I would wake up in the middle of the night, and just go down on my knees because ...while I loved the sport of gymnastics, and I had a passion for it and my identity was so wrapped up in it, I did feel what I know now about the sport; that it's full of a very unhealthy culture.”

“That was why, even as a young person, I would pray or I would talk to talk to Christ or I would write in my journal, because I did need that level of support that I know I lacked a great deal of,” she said.

More in US

Dawes retired from gymnastics in 2000. Around the same time, she began to feel drawn to visit a Catholic church in the Rockville area of Washington.

“I would go and I would just sit in this church knowing very little about the Catholic faith, but I felt called to be there. I loved the sense of peace and silence,” she said.

A few years later, Dawes enrolled in RCIA, and she fell deeper in love with the Catholic faith. She told CNA she felt a special connection with the Virgin Mary.

“I always felt as a young person, while my mom did the best that she could, and my coach who many times was labeled as a mother figure, neither of them were truly happy people,” Dawes said. “I felt as if I wanted to find... a mother who maybe was happy. Those loving arms that you can run into and just feel that sense of comfort and love, which I never felt as a child.”

Dawes became a Catholic in 2013. She married a Catholic school teacher, and today they have four children together.

She discovered that her grandmother was Catholic. Dawes believes her grandmother was guiding her to the Catholic faith.

“My grandmother...was named after Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, when she was a blessed woman, the first Native American saint,” Dawes said. “My grandmother was full Piscataway Conoy Native American, and she was Catholic. I knew very little about this until I became an adult. And I was like, ‘Oh, and that's my grandmother I felt calling me into this Church.’”

(Story continues below)

Even though Dawes has retired, gymnastics continues to be a big part of her life. Today, she owns and operates a gymnastics academy for young people in the D.C. area. She said she strives to foster a healthy culture at her gym, a culture markedly different than the one she was trained in.

“It is not the sport of gymnastics that is an unhealthy and corrupt sport. It is the culture, and the culture is determined by the people,” she said.

She’s particular about the trainers she hires to work with young gymnasts at her gym, and she said she can notice the difference.

“The people that I have on board, they really are so positive. I love it,” Dawes said. “It amazes me, because of the environment that I came from that was so critical. Like, nothing you could do in the sport of gymnastics was right. Nothing was ever good enough.”

“I told my husband, when I opened these doors, I said, ‘I really want this big sign that says ‘You are Enough’.’”

“I want every young girl and young boy that walks through our doors, either for Ninja or gymnastics or preschool gymnastics, to realize that they have everything inside of them to help them succeed in life. And that they are more than enough because the sport teaches you that you're not enough,” she said.

Dawes also finds encouragement from her favorite Bible verse: Philippians 4:13.

“Can't get simpler than that. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” I have to remind myself of that constantly, because I need to remind myself that I'm not alone. I didn't do gymnastics alone. I didn't get formed in my mother's room alone. I wasn't given this gift alone,” Dawes said.

“Whenever I get fearful, or I feel a sense of anxiety, which I still go through, I remind myself that, ‘Hey, he's by my side.’ Sometimes I need to sit back, stay in the passenger seat because he knows what's best for me.”

This interview originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the interview here, beginning at 9:30.