- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Former Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, but a few miles from some of the most important sites in America such as the White House, National Mall and the Capitol. But what the three-time Olympian never realized what exactly how many National Parks were located but a short drive from the Maryland suburb where she still lives.

Ms. Dawes met The Washington Times on a particularly sunny late-spring afternoon at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Southeast, where the venerated abolitionist made his home during his time as the District’s marshall, the first African-American to hold a position requiring Senate approval.

“Coming to the Frederick Douglass house is a wonderful experience for me, and I look forward to learning more about my culture [and] my history,” Ms. Dawes said on the front porch of the 19th century home.

Ms. Dawes, 40, said she didn’t even realize how many National Parks she had been to with her husband and two younger daughters until they took an informal count.

“I’m thrilled to team up with the National Park Foundation to help families and individuals ‘find their park’ and to help them discover lesser-known parks,” Ms. Dawes said, adding the campaign is also a way to foster appreciation for the 101-year-old government bureau.

Ms. Dawes and her husband saw much of the Pacific Northwest during their honeymoon, stopping at

Multnomah Falls and Crater Lake in Oregon, as well as journeying through Denali National Park in Alaska.

The couple also recently explored Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine.

“It was a good break from the 95-plus degree weather [in the District]. It was like 70 up there,” Ms. Dawes said. “Walking there was a beautiful sight to see with our then-year-and-a-half-year-old toddler and a baby in the womb.”

By her own admission, Ms. Dawes isn’t terribly fond of the outdoors — “I’m afraid of squirrels,” she said with a laugh — but noted that there is something for everyone who wishes to discover America’s National Parks, be they indoors or primarily in nature.

Furthermore, you needn’t have to travel far to see them. In addition to Frederick Douglass’ home and the National Mall, National Parks in and nearby the nation’s capital include George Mason Memorial Park, Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, Great Falls and Theodore Roosevelt Island.

“There’s at least one National Park that’s within driving distance” of much of the U.S., Ms. Dawes said. “They’re very accessible; they’re very affordable.”

Ms. Dawes has both African-American and American Indian heritage, and has visited the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall. She looks forward to seeing the National Museum of African American History and Culture soon — and not just to see her younger self on display there.

Ms. Dawes recalling getting a text from a friend visiting the newest Smithsonian museum on the Mall, saying, “My gosh, you’re in the museum!”

“I guess I’m in a couple of videos, and I wonder if my daughters would even recognize me,” Ms. Dawes said of the vintage footage of herself competing in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics on display at the museum. (By her last competition in Sydney, even though she was just 23, her younger teammates referred to her jokingly as “Grandma.”)

Ms. Dawes began training at the age of 6, and said by the time she was 11, there was buzz she might go to the Olympics.

“It was always a struggle for me because I had self-esteem issues as a kid and didn’t always believe that I was good enough or could accomplish these lofty goals that people around me thought I could,” she recalls of her preadolescent and adolescent years. “But I knew that I loved the sport. The idea of ever quitting or giving up was not on my radar even though I wanted to quit every week [because] it was a very challenging as well as demanding emotionally.

“You don’t really have much of a life when you’re a gymnast, but without gymnastics in my life, I did feel there would be a void. There was always something to learn from a mistake.”

Ms. Dawes was a member of the so-called “Magnificent Seven” gymnastics team that took home gold in the team competition at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Her teammates included Shannon Miller, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug, who famously secured the gold with her final vault on an injured ankle.

The team reunited last year for the 20th anniversary of that monumental achievement, along with coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi.

“Everyone’s grown up. They’re married, they’re happy, they’re mothers,” Ms. Dawes said of her former teammates, adding that the gymnasts, while thankful for their accomplishments, keep their focus on the future rather than the past. “It’s amazing what we were able to accomplish 21 years ago, but how much more amazing is it to be a wife and a mother today,” she said.

Ms. Dawes served as co-chair of President Barack Obama’s President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, alongside New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In that capacity she also worked with former first lady Michelle Obama on the Let’s Move initiative to help boys and girls to combat obesity.

“We would just start jumping rope with the kids [and show them] what physical activity is all about,” Ms. Dawes said.

By her own admission, Ms. Dawes doesn’t get much exercise these days beyond chasing around her toddlers. Coaching young up-and-coming gymnast, she said, also wasn’t for her.

“My coach Kelli Hill was an amazing coach, but the time commitment needed would take too much time away from my family,” she said. “I sacrificed so much training for those three Olympics that I’m finding my passion now with my family.”

However, Ms. Dawes has taken her young daughters to see the tour performances of 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic champs Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, and she encourages her daughters to try gymnastics as well as music and soccer.

Ms. Dawes also believes it is incumbent to encourage other girls and young women to try sports by pointing to such role models as Ms. Raisman and Ms. Biles.

“To get girls in sports really has to come from the home first,” Ms. Dawes said. “I know I am my daughters’ first teacher, so the encouragement really does need to come from me. Hopefully from there I give them the confidence to believe in themselves, to work hard, to set goals and to accomplish those goals.”

Despite her advocacy on behalf of the wealth of the capital region’s parks and historic sites, Ms. Dawes maintains that her primary coaching now is at home.

“Having the opportunity to mold and shape my little ones to love themselves and others is my No. 1 job that I have today,” she said.

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