The Olympian Who Taught Me to Celebrate Black Women's Strength and Power

My world was changed when, as a nine-year-old gymnast, I watched Dominique Dawes become the first Black person of any gender or nationality to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.

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Feb 13 2018, 7:13pm

Art by Laura Horstmann

For Black History Month, writer Britt Julious pens a weekly column examining pop culture moments that deepened her understanding of her self and identity.

I was never a great gymnast, but that wasn’t the point. When you’re young and antsy, your mother (like my mother) will enroll you in whatever activities she can find to channel your energy. And so, only a few years after we were able to walk, my mother enrolled my sister and me at Tri-Star Gymnastics. I don’t think she thought of us as particularly graceful or athletic, but she saw something in us that craved the outlet of jumping and flipping and swinging and crawling. And she was right, for there are few things I remember more clearly about my childhood than gymnastics.

What I loved about gymnastics was its inherent rarity. Gymnastics was an odd sport. It typically only entered the public consciousness once every four years during the Summer Olympics. And although both men and women competed in gymnastics, women’s gymnastics seemed to always hold the public’s attention, perhaps because of the size of its competitors coupled with the sheer force of their performances. Most can’t comprehend just how a gymnast reaches an elite level, but we are amazed by their talents all the same.

Like dance (the other physical activity I participated in regularly as a child), it requires total mastery of one’s body. The older I became and the more my physicality became a point of fascination and contention (because of my height and shape, and because little girls face constant scrutiny), the more gymnastics became my outlet for self-mastery. I could not control the way the world saw me, but I could control my strength and power. And although we tell young girls to fall in line, gymnastics taught me that there were always new lessons about what I was capable of achieving.

But perhaps my fondest memory of gymnastics came from seeing a part of myself in its elite athletes. Representation matters. I first remember Betty Okino (but only barely, because I was four when she competed in the 1992 Olympics). But Dominique Dawes, who first competed in 1992 but later won at the 1996 Olympic games, seared into my mind the idea that the seemingly impossible can be possible. This body I called my own could dominate in a world that quickly made me feel like it preferred the opposite: for women like me to submit. I could, in essence, become a mighty machine of my making, and be celebrated—rather than castigated—for it.

The 1996 Summer Olympics took place during my family’s vacation to Orlando and the Bahamas, but we were glued to the television screens in our hotel rooms all the same. It was a monumental moment for my sister and me; we were spellbound by the gymnasts who were only a few years older than us. Gymnastics was our sport, and unlike earlier Olympic games where we were too young to process our connection to the competitors fully, the ‘96 Olympics were ours to relish in as athletes, too.

My heroes are numerous and work across disciplines, from music to visual art to literature. But there was something about Dawes, a gymnast, and dancer of Herculean athleticism and control, that appealed to me at age nine. Maybe it was her sheer mastery of the sport, her capability to reach a level I hadn’t yet realized was possible. Dawes was both the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics and the first Black person of any gender or nationality to win a gold medal in gymnastics. Maybe it was her grace under fire, her ability to make her mark by merely doing her best and knowing that was more than good enough. Or perhaps it was the fact that she was unique, an outlier, a young Black woman standing alone on a team that, in many gyms across the country, would likely be all-white. Today, Dawes continues to be a role model to many, becoming the Women’s Sports Federation’s youngest president in 2004 and speaking out against sexual abuse in the gymnastics community.

Gymnastics contextualized the world I inhabited as a young athlete. Things are much better now regarding representation with superstar role models like Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, but the significant figures of my time were few. A 2007 study from USA Gymnastics showed African-Americans comprised only 6.6% of the participants in the sport, less than the 13% of African-Americans which make the U.S. population. This lack of diversity mimicked what I saw outside the world of gymnastics, in my dance or other non-athletic classes.

There again was that voice, a whisper in the back of my mind, that something was odd about being one of the few Black girls in any given setting, but not knowing exactly why that mattered. In Dawes, I finally understood this was the way it would likely be for me, again and again—but also that I am capable of making it through, even if I feel uncomfortable or strange or wrong. I belong here, even if the world isn’t ready for me yet.

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And when the 1996 Olympics were over, the hoopla died down, and the Magnificent Seven were a great footnote of the past, I found a Dominique Dawes-caliber role model in my older sister, who was a much better gymnast than I would ever be. We were and are different people, but I understood her better through gymnastics. In true gymnast form, my sister bottled up an inner source of strength and power that could burst forth at any moment like a glittering shooting star passing through the night sky. In gymnastics, she revealed the person underneath the person who often kept the specifics of her life close to the chest. Her gravity-defying feats proved she was full of fire and energy, something I hoped to emulate when I reached junior high and high school.

Maybe I didn’t know my sister (or the world), as well as I thought, but I knew the feel of chalk on my hands, the fear of the vault as I raced toward it, the simplicity and beauty of a round-off flip-flop. The language of gymnastics was ours, and the athletes within it were a string connecting our disparate lives and interests. We were two Black girls navigating something rare, odd, and commanding. It kept me connected to something higher than myself, something I would cherish for years after I last stepped on the mat.