Dominique Dawes 'Not Surprised' Simone Biles Pulled Out

Four-time gold-medalist Dominque Dawes talked with Chance Seales about everything from the "twisties" to the continued abuse in gymnastics.
Posted at 8:13 PM, Jul 28, 2021

Chance Seales: Simone Biles is backing away — team competition, now all-around. Dominique, are you surprised?   

Dominique Dawes: I am not surprised, based on day one of the team finals and her having a bit of a mental block on a Yurchenko Amanar vault and she did a 1.5 and got a little lost in the air and then made that decision, listened to her inner voice and made the best decision for her mentally as well as physically. It's really hard to shut everything out and then 48 hours to compete again and I think she recognized that it was best for her to make the decision sooner rather than later so that her teammate could step in in her place.   

Chance: You just said she kind of got lost in the air and I think a lot of us watch this and we think, “Oh my gosh, they're so graceful, it's so easy,” and it's not. Going in. Simone said, “I feel like I have the way to the world on my shoulders,” and then there's something that some of us are learning about called the twisties. Basically the yips is what they call it in other sports. And one gymnast, Jacoby Miles online said she actually got paralyzed because she tried to push through the twisties. Can you explain what that is?  

Dawes: Yes, I remember always hearing “analysis paralysis” from my coach where I would overanalyze things and then I would be frozen and I couldn't do anything and that can lead to a serious injury. I had never actually heard the term twisties, it didn't exist maybe back in the ‘90s. It's something that I think they've coined this year. But it's a mental block, it's overthinking, it's not letting go and just relying on your muscle to have memory to do a particular gymnastic move. And you try very hard and many times you get lost and it's a bit — it's very — scary, and usually you have to push through it and you have to force yourself to compete. That's back in the day when the sport was filled with fear, intimidation and silence and control. Today, Simone Biles uses her own voice. She listens to her own voice and I commend her for that. That is very courageous and it's also very humbling for her to do that.   

Chance: We have the twisties, we have the normal — if you can call it normal — Olympic jitters. We also have what's happening behind the scenes. If you could take us into the world of USA Gymnastics, I have to tell you, I mean, I rooted for you in the '90s, I think, all of us were your fans and now today everyone's Simone Biles’ fan. And it looks so supportive, it looks so celebratory. They've had, you know, media coaching, I'm sure from the outside it looks great, but we keep hearing how bad it is inside culturally. 

I want [you] to help us understand tonight if we could the magnitude of that experience and some of the abuses that are now coming to the fore. You told us this recently, “She's the only survivor of the Larry Nassar scandal that's on the floor right now competing. And she stated that if she were not on the floor competing, that she believes that our federation would just sweep it under the rug and she's right.”  

You said Simone is right, they would have just swept all this under the rug. Does this rot continue to this day in USA Gymnastics?  

Dawes: There still needs to be a great deal of change. I will say it's nice to see these athletes on the floor, smiling, laughing a little bit, hugging one another where there does seem to be this sisterhood, this friendship not only with each other, but even as I watched the team finals the other day, they were hugging and high-fiving the Russian gymnast, I could not imagine that. So that aspect has changed where these young girls can connect and they see each other as friends and not just as competitors. 

But there are still abuses that are happening. Physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse. And everyone knows about the scandal that was brought to the forefront in 2016 with regards to Larry Nassar with the hundreds of women that he sexually abused. And Simone, as she was quoted saying in an interview, she was the only survivor on the floor competing. And it wasn't just about sports anymore for her, it was truly about changing the culture of the sport, of gymnastics for the next generation to not go through what she went through or many other athletes went through. 

Chance: When you say the verbal abuse, the physical abuse, what do you mean by that? Because those of us who have watched, we think, "Oh my, those Karolyis look tough." But I don't know what you mean behind the scenes are the coaches saying, "You're nothing. You're never going to make it." Are they making you bend your back in a way that really hurts? What do you mean by abuse?  

Dawes: It's very much yelling and screaming. It is a culture of fear. It is a culture of control. It is a culture of intimidation, of control, of silence – where you as an athlete, you are taught to not listen to your inner voice. Even if you feel uncomfortable, you are not to speak out. It's very hard for you to speak out if you're feeling injured or if you're mentally maybe not ready to do a particular move. You are to push through the pain. You are to, let's say, suck it up. And these are young girls – impressionable young girls – that start the sport of gymnastics when they're six years old and they start grooming them at that young of an age in that very harsh culture. 

I'm sitting at my gymnastics academy right now. I never thought at nearly 45 years old, a mother of four kids that I would be opening a gym. But I vowed in my twenties, if I ever had children, I would not want them to go through what I went through 18 years in the sport of gymnastics. So that's why my husband and I opened the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy here in Clarksburg, Maryland. And we hope to open other academies in the DMV area so that kids can have a healthier, more encouraging, more compassionate, more empowering experience in the sport of gymnastics. 

You hear stories of so many Olympians and Olympic athletes that talk about how they were beaten down and it's something where they then go through a lifelong set of struggles where they try to pick up the pieces. They go through depression, they go through anxiety and that's something that I want to ward off from today's and tomorrow's generation of athletes.  

Chance: It's just wild, Dominique, to hear you say, "I knew if I ever had kids I would not put them in the sport the way I did because so many parents looked at you and said, 'I want my daughter to be Dominique Dawes, I want my daughter to be Simone Biles.'" What did you go through that told you, "I will never allow that."

Dawes: People see us at the Olympics. They see us standing on the Olympic podium with our hand over our heart, hearing the national anthem. They see the end result, but they don't see the journey and the sacrifice and the commitment that it takes to get there. 

A young kid does not need to be training in a gymnastics gym 36 hours a week. When I opened my facility, there were a number of parents that came to me and said, "I am such a fan of yours. But when you were younger, I was concerned for your well-being because you guys were clearly breaking child labor law." So that in itself – it's a full-time job, it's pressure, it sacrifice, it’s all – you know – and you think you're comfortable with it, but you're not because you really can't speak out. Again, like I talked about, you are taught not to trust your inner voice. 

However, today there are hundreds – if not thousands – of young female athletes coming out and speaking their truth and many of them feel guilty about being truthful because they're letting things out about the sport that was also secretive. I just took part in being a part of a docuseries called "Golden" and we showcase that. We show the full journey and it's full of fear, it's full of control and it's full of anxiety.  

Chance: I'm so glad you pointed out they start at 6 years old. You think of 6-year-old little girls and they’re twirling around, they're having fun and suddenly you are a professional and you have to be so good. That part is heartbreaking. Take me a little bit more into the team behind the team, the faces of the people we don't know.

I want to play this real quick: 

Dawes: "Goodness. I think that we need to get rid of some people that were a part of the old regime that allowed a lot of those abuses to go on, that turned a blind eye. Maybe they didn't know about the abuses that were going on with regards to Larry Nassar, but you can look at the face of a young child and know as if they are happy or not. It doesn't take a rocket scientist."

Chance: You go back to the 6-year-old, the teenager, it doesn't take a rocket scientist. Are the people who look the other way with Larry Nassar and with the abuses still working with the team today. Do they work directly with Simone Biles?  

Dawes: Who exactly are you referring to the team? 

Chance: That's what I don't know. We don't know who looked the other way. You – you know. 

Dawes: No, she knows. The thing is Simone is even speaking out and saying that there needs to be an internal investigation done of who knew what, when, with regards to the sexual abuses of Larry Nassar. There are hundreds of survivors that have come out and spoken out. However, there needs to be that internal investigation that she has been demanding and that's very courageous for her to do that and also to be competing underneath of the federation. That would be hard. That would be scary. That would be fearful. And so, once that internal investigation is done, you would know who was aware of what was going on. Even USA Gymnastics has come out and said that they used to reward coaches for their abusive behavior. They're starting to speak out as well and be very truthful that it was okay to demean or yell at or physically punish a child with strength and conditioning or things of that nature. 

Again, my biggest message is to the parents today. Look at your child. Your child is a child. Are they happy? Are they secure? Are they full of fear? Are they full of anxiety? Are they afraid to walk away from a sport because of what has been ingrained in them? My thing is this: You've got to put your kids in a healthy environment and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know if your children are happy. So the thing is, parents need to also not live vicariously through their children and look at their children's little faces and recognize whether this environment is healthy for them today because if it's not, it's going to affect them greatly all up until their adult years and it'll be something that you'll be struggling with. 

Chance: What I'm hearing you say, Dominique, is that the problems went far beyond Larry Nassar – even if it wasn't sexual, there were other abuses and problematic behavior. Some of these people stick around for decades. Who do you think needs to go? 

Dawes: I believe it's the culture. When everything came out about Larry Nassar, I was very uneasy about speaking out and saying anything and even someone had told me, "Don't speak out or they are going to reveal these skeletons in your closet." And I'm thinking, "Oh, what is it that I don't want revealed about me?" Like it became very fear culture. If you watch the docuseries, or documentary, "Athlete A," the athletes that were speaking out like Dominique Moceanu, one of the most courageous people I know,  they would shun her. They would ostracize her. They made sure she was not going to make that 2000 Olympic team and they’d push you aside.

Chance: But who? Who was it? Is it managers? Is it physical trainers? Is it functionaries in the administration? Who? 

Dawes: I would say it's coaches. It's the coaches that are working with these children day in and day out. Many of them are also gym owners. You need to go into the gymnastics environment and a lot of athletes again, they do not trust their inner voice, even though they are living in complete discomfort and fear. It's all they know. They've been taught that it was fear that is comfort for them. I was nervous and anxious nearly every day of my life going to gym and leaving the gym. 

When I had opportunities to leave the sport, I felt very lost because as an Olympian, you get caught up in – that is your identity: I am an Olympic gymnast. If I leave the sport, who am I? 

Larry was only able to abuse hundreds of young women because they were vulnerable and they were already being abused and very uncomfortable and he took advantage of that. 

Chance: One more piece of sound for you here. The adults in the room. They have been called out by your teammates, now, by you. Just a little background for viewers  

Dawes: "There were a lot of adults present watching these young kids get verbally, physically, mentally, psychologically abused and they turned a blind eye because they felt as if that is the way that you build champions. Now, that is the way you break a human being."

Chance: You know, as we look at it and think, "Okay, what needs to change?" You talk a lot about culture of change within USA Gymnastics, Dominique Moceano said, "Are you kidding me? Did you look at some of these leaders they're trying to install?" Who do you think needs to lead? Because they need a strong leader and a team around them to lead USA Gymnastics.  

Dawes: I really think it's important for another organization to resurface. I don't know if they can mend what has been really broken – because there's still people involved. Take a look at my docuseries called "Golden." There is a director of sports performance and that is a part of the selection committee and throughout this docuseries where we follow five elite athletes, or Olympic hopefuls. They talk about the fear. They talk about the anxiety. They talk about the lack of control. They've now also sacrificed their full childhood, committed for this one dream and yet they don't even have any control, fully, over the outcome. These young girls are talking about, you know, "What did this person think of me?" and, "Oh no, I'm so fearful," and – the anxiety. 

For me, it was even hard for me to participate in this because it brought up a great deal of anxiety that I felt. I was on three different Olympic teams and there was a committee that made a decision – each and every time – whether they wanted you on the Olympic team. It didn't matter what place you were in. At my first Olympic trials in 1992, I was in fourth place. I was still at the trainings afterwards, fearful "Was my my mental blocks – was my falls in practice – going to affect the outcome? Do I have a bad attitude? What does my coach think of me? How is she speaking about me?" There's the politics that play into it and they booted someone off the team that had came in the top six for no reason. They made a decision that she wasn't going to be on the team and they put someone else on who had not competed for a full year. In the 1996 Olympics, we qualified. We didn't have very much control again, but they chose the people that scored for the most part at Olympic trials. Two people did sit in the stands and not compete because they were injured – I was injured. I didn't want to compete, I was in pain, but my coach made it very clear to me, "If you don't compete, there is no guarantee that they're going to put you on the team." 

I commend again, Simone for her courageous effort. I commend her for her humility and I love the fact that she has an internal voice that she's listening to and it's doing what's best for Simone Biles. Because at the end of the day, it's her life that she's got to live and I love the fact that she's actually standing up for herself.  

Chance: You talk about replacing a culture of fear with the culture change. Things are a-changin'. Dominique Dawes. Thank you.  

Dawes: Thank you very much. Take care.