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Dominique Dawes, Olympian To Health Advocate13:50

Dominique Dawes encourages kids to get 60 minutes of active play every day as part of the kick off of YMCA's Healthy Kids Day in April 2011.MoreCloseclosemore
Dominique Dawes encourages kids to get 60 minutes of active play every day as part of the kick off of YMCA's Healthy Kids Day in April 2011.

In her budding teenage years, Dominique Dawes had already captured the Olympic spotlight, becoming the first female African-American gymnast to win an individual medal in her sport at the Games.

After devoting 18 years to gymnastics, she retired, and then worked on Broadway and for TV news.

In 2010, President Obama appointed her as co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, where she focuses on combating childhood obesity and educating women on cardiovascular disease. She recently partnered with Sweet'N Low to raise awareness on diabetes, which affects more than 25 million Americans, including some of her family members.

In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Dawes says she's just an everyday person: "When I retired from the sport at 23 years old, I was no longer training the five to seven hours a day in the gym for six days a week; and like everyone, I put on the 15 or 20 pounds during my freshman year in college."

She says she no longer strives for an "Olympic physique," and now, at age 35, she loves her body and understands the importance of regular exercise to maintain physical and emotional health.

Dawes performs her balance beam routine at the Atlanta Games in 1996. (AP)

Rising And Falling In Gymnastics

Dawes began participating in gymnastics at age 6, and began competing at age 10.

She says that her community's support prevented her from succumbing to monthly urges to quit. Dawes also gave a lot of credit to her coach. "When I set the bar at a level," she says, "she set it at about three notches up higher."

She said her favorite Olympic moment was when she fell during the all-around competition in 1996.

"When you have certain mistakes or failures in life, there's always an opportunity for a lesson to be learned," she says. "And of course, at 19 years old ... I made that mistake and felt like I had disappointed all 50,000 people in the Georgia Dome and millions of people watching."

After retiring, she reflected on what went awry at that moment: "It was good to recognize that it was an issue I was dealing with in practice weeks, months earlier, where I did not want to work on that particular skill. And so that's something I always speak to young people about — that if you give 70 or 80 percent effort, you're going to get 70 or 80 percent outcome."

Breaking Barriers

Dawes and her teammates, known as the "Magnificent Seven," wave to the crowd after being awarded their gold medals in the team competition at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. (AP)

Dawes says she didn't realize the impact of her achievement — particularly on communities of color — when it happened.

"I didn't get it until Halle Berry won the Oscar. And I don't remember what year it was, but I was home. I remember sitting in my living room bawling, because I thought about the impact that her achievement was going to make on her race and on young people that were seeing that — 'Oh, if she can do it, I can do it to,' " says Dawes. "That's when the light bulb went on, and I was like, 'Oh! I get it.' That's why people would come up to me and bawl and cry to me, and be like, 'Oh thank you for all that you've done.' "

Today's Challenges For College Students And Their Families

In light of the recent college sex abuse scandals, Dawes advises parents to have close relationships with coaches: "If you are in a facility, and the coach ignores you and does not want to communicate with you as a parent, then you should take your business and your money elsewhere."

In addition, she says parents should have open communication with their children, so children would feel comfortable about speaking up if something occurs.

And how can students compete at a high level without compromising other aspects of their lives?

"I've heard a number of stories where there are student-athletes that have been told by coaches or people [who are] part of the athletic department that, 'You are here first and foremost for athletics, and then your education comes second.' And I think that being told to young people is detrimental because it's such a small percentage of us that make it to the professional level," Dawes says.

But Dawes acknowledges that she was never a student-athlete herself. Though she earned a full scholarship to Stanford University, she decided to stay in Maryland and train for two different Olympic Games (the 1996 and 2000 Games) after her first, in 1992.

She went to public school, then to the University of Maryland in College Park. She wasn't participating in athletics for the university because she had chosen to be a pro athlete. Dawes says she drove from her university to her coach's gym, trained for five to seven hours, then returned to the university.

"So my situation is very unique, but I would say for those young gymnasts today that are considering or contemplating going professional, make sure you have a trusted network of people — a small support system of people that are going to advise you truthfully and not tell you maybe either what you want to hear or sounds good. Though it worked for me, it may not work for others," she says.

Copyright NPR 2018.

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