George P. Smith/The Montgomery Sentinel

Dominique Dawes after she was inducted in the inaugural class of the Montgomery County Sports Hall of Fame.

ROCKVILLE – In advance of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Dominique Dawes, retired artistic gymnast and the first Black Olympian to win gold in gymnastics, has announced she will be opening her own gymnastics academy in Clarksburg this spring. The move was inspired by the Me Too movement and her own four children.

Dawes was 6 years old when she was introduced to gymnastics, starting a career that brought her to the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, the latter of which earned her a gold medal as an artistic gymnast, the first Black person of any nationality to do so. After walking out and back into playing for the national team, she ultimately retired from competition at the age of 23 in 2000.

After pursuing careers in modeling and acting, and acting as co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Health in 2010, Dawes was inducted into the Montgomery County Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 to honor her history. Now, she continues her work to build her own academy in the county she grew up in as a youngster.

Kelli Hill, Dawes’ mentor throughout her gymnastics career, spoke with pride for Dawes.

“It’s great,” Hill said about the academy. “There couldn’t be a better honor than for her to be following in my footsteps.”

The academy, called the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy, will host classes for children as old as 14 and include a competitive team, promoting a “healthy, competitive team culture” for its members. Classes are divided by age and include tumbling for cheer and dance and “ninja” gym training.

“When Dominique accepted her award from the Hall of Fame, one of the things that she mentioned…(was) she wanted to create a safe place for girls, and that was a priority of hers,” said Trish Heffelfinger, chair of the Montgomery County Sports Hall of Fame. “I’m thrilled that she’s chosen to do that in Montgomery County.”

Dawes became disillusioned with the current state of national gymnastics after learning that Larry Nassar, a former doctor for the USA gymnastics national team, had sexually assaulted multiple young gymnasts in his care, accused of assaulting more than 250 girls.

When looking for an academy for her own kids to join, she realized she was “uncomfortable” with what was currently available. Having known Nassar during her years with the national team, Dawes considered how the sport could be harsh to young girls.

“It’s not uncommon for athletes to come in crying,” Dawes said of gymnasts during competitions.

“I had anxiety every day,” she said of her own experience. “Every day.”

Wanting to support her children as they took up the sport but unable to trust the institution, Dawes decided to set up her own. Her mission now is to create a space that is “compassionate” and “empowering” for young gymnasts, in contrast to her experiences with coaches growing up.

“She wanted to make it clear,” Heffelfinger said. “She wanted girls coming to her academy were going to be a safe environment.”

Feeling the market was saturated in Rockville and southern Montgomery County, where she lives, she took herself north, where she “fell in love” with the Clarksburg community. She’s claimed to have met over 100 families in Clarksburg, and continues to arrange more meet and greets with its residents.

These residents have inspired Dawes to include a space for parents to care for their younger children while their older children are in class, an accommodation they felt was lacking in other facilities. She also promises to hire a staff of teachers who will build “a young person’s self-esteem and self.”

Dawes has said that while her kids, who are all 6 and under, were a motivating factor, she also considered her own history in gymnastics.

“This is about a legacy. This is about a positive impact,” Dawes said. “When I’m no longer here, what have I left behind? What have I left in my wake?”

“I truly believe the gymnastics academy in Maryland will be part of my legacy,” she said.

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