Simone Biles was expected to repeat her gold medal wins at the Tokyo Olympics, but instead, she pulled out of the competition citing mental health reasons.
"The outpouring love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics,” Biles wrote on Twitter, “which I never truly believed before.”
Four-time Olympic medalist Dominique Dawes says she relates to Biles’ statement. Dawes was the first Black American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in gymnastics — a bronze in floor exercise at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She also won a team gold in Atlanta.
In 1994, Dawes had a difficult, emotional year preparing for championships. She recalls crying every day during practice for a month leading up to a competition.
The mother of one of her teammates, Alexis Norman, pulled Dawes aside one day and said the team loves her because of who she is, not just because of her gymnastics accomplishments.
“That really struck me because those kind words really commending me for [my] character, just who I was choosing to be, had not been something I had heard at such a young age,” Dawes says. “And at that time, I was almost 18 years old.”
The comment helped Dawes put things in perspective. Weeks later, she won all four events at nationals.
The day before the Olympic trial this year, Biles posted on Instagram, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
As the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles faced immense pressure to repeat the four gold medals she won at the 2016 Olympics, Dawes says.
“That is a very difficult task to do in addition to being human and knowing that anything can happen,” Dawes says. “The pressure of fans and friends and family, I'm sure, eventually got to her, especially being a brand. She's a professional athlete and it can be a little overwhelming at times.”
Biles is also dealing with personal issues — another aspect of her story that Dawes relates to.
Dawes suffered an emotional breakdown before marching out into the Georgia Dome at the 1996 Olympics. She recalls dropping down on her knees and praying to help her realize she wasn’t in the competition alone.
When Dawes made history as the first Black American woman gymnast to qualify at the 1992 Olympic trials in Baltimore, she also became a role model. She remembers getting thousands of fan letters from Black parents, grandparents and kids thanking her for pursuing her dream.
Washington Post sports reporter Candace Buckner writes that “whenever Biles pulls on her leotard, it’s as though she’s tightening a cape around her neck. She’s the hero tasked with saving a sullied sport.” Buckner is referring to convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, who served as team doctor for the women's gymnastics team for 18 years and molested Biles and hundreds of other young women gymnasts.
Dawes was not a victim of Nassar, but she’s familiar with the way the culture of the sport gives young girls anxiety, self-doubt and insecurity. Young gymnasts don’t trust their “inner voice,” she says, because they’re taught to mute it and instead listen to coaches or USA Gymnastics.
“The culture of the sport of gymnastics is full of a great deal of verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse,” she says. “And it is in many cases a very unhealthy environment where young girls are living in fear.”
Biles has faced criticism for her decision to withdraw from people such as Fox News commentator Raymond Arroyo, who said the time to work through the trauma she experienced at the hands of Nassar “was before the Olympic trials, not during the Olympic Games.”
Biles is the only survivor of Nassar on Team USA — a position Dawes can’t imagine being in. Healing is a lifelong process, she says.
“It'll never be behind her,” Dawes. “If anyone is a victim of any type of abuse, you understand that it's a lifelong commitment that you have to make and you have to work through, that there are many things that can even trigger the abuses to come to your present-day, even though the occurrence might have happened many years back.”
The environment fostered at gyms across the country continues to emotionally and physically traumatize young gymnasts, Dawes says.
She believes the problem with the culture of gymnastics stems back to the Russian mentality of the 1980s. Coaches and gym owners need to rethink what’s been ingrained in them for decades, she says.
“It's something that really does need to stop,” she says, “because it's broken a lot more girls than it's built up.”
Looking toward the future, Dawes hopes Biles keeps following her heart and listening to herself.
Biles’ situation is shedding light on the unhealthy nature of gymnastics and the need for change, Dawes says. Her desire to create a compassionate, empowering culture in the sport led her to start the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy in Clarksburg, Maryland.
Dawes says she wants to build “happy, healthy kids” rather than champions — even if it means her gym never produces an Olympian.
“My kids only have one childhood. Let's make it a healthy and balanced childhood,” she says. “My children will not just do gymnastics. ... They will have a much more well-rounded life.”
This segment aired on July 29, 2021.