With fewer than 100 days to the Olympic Games in London, the memories come tumbling back. Elite gymnast Dominique Dawes knows how it feels to stand on the highest podium with gold around her neck. And she knows how one misstep in an exacting sport means going home early.
During her career in artistic gymnastics she became the only American to medal in an unprecedented three Olympics, and she was the first African American to win both an individual medal and an Olympic team gold.
For nearly 20 years, structured sacrifice and singular dedication kept Dawes intensely focused on her goals. Even during the unique spectacle of the Olympic experience, she stayed outside of the Olympic Village, skipped Opening and Closing Ceremonies altogether and ignored the attractions of new countries.
But now in her 30s, Dawes' perspective is wider. And looking back, the thing she notices throughout her journey is the hand of God.
When Dawes was 6 years old, her parents unceremoniously signed her up for a tumbling class. But boasting only two students -- Dawes and her sister -- the class was canceled. At the same time they heard of another gym, farther away. The longer drive took her to the coach whose voice she would listen to for the next 18 years.
With the clarity of hindsight, Dawes views the coincidences and curiosities as divinely intentional. "My mother had no interest in sports. And my dad knew nothing about gymnastics, and it [seemed] really by chance that I ended up signing up. I really do think it was definitely God's hands that made this happen."
To young Dawes, the gym was a sanctuary. Reserved at school where her small size and squeaky voice made her crawl into a shell, in gymnastics she fit right in. "It was an environment where I felt very comfortable," she admits. "I really just felt like I belonged."
With her God-given gifts and with God-given timing, Dawes represented the United States in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Athletes know her longevity is highly unusual, especially in a sport where extreme physical demands make the window for competition exceptionally small.
Praised as an African-American pioneer in a sport traditionally dominated by Caucasians, Dawes stood on the podium as part of teams that better characterized the diverse country they represented.
Today, Dawes acknowledges that she could not have followed her sustained, ground-breaking path any better than if she'd been led by the hand. "I have no other gift in any other sport. I've tried other things -- been horrible," she says candidly. "The Lord blessed me with these talents and opened that door for me to flourish in gymnastics."
But when her gymnastics journey was over, Dawes had to turn a corner. This time she looked for His hand to lead her.
Praying and reading His Word, Dawes discovered a passion she hadn't yet recognized. Surprising even to her, the girl who stayed in her shell at school started reaching out to inspire others.
She partnered with the Girl Scouts of America to encourage healthy self-esteem. Because even as medals hung around her neck, Dawes endured the thorn of paralyzing self-doubt. In a world of elite gymnastics, excellent is hardly good enough and fractions of a point are the difference between the top of the leaderboard and the bottom. A young audience didn't have to face a panel of international judges to come away encouraged by Dawes' specific struggle.
Dawes also served as the youngest president for the Women's Sports Foundation to encourage confidence through fitness. And she took on other projects to support health and activity for the young, old and especially challenged.
In 2010 another divine opportunity came her way. The White House invited Dawes to co-chair the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition along with Super Bowl champion quarterback Drew Brees. Dawes was thrilled to offer her passion, leadership and God-given gifts to the cause.
"I really think that God placed me in the gymnastics arena because that was my passion," she says, "but my purpose is to inspire people with that passion."
In July Dawes will go to London to experience the Olympics as a spectator. Although she can keenly relate to the athlete's focus, she understands that the journey stretches far beyond a five-second race or 90-second routine. Armed with a broader perspective, Dawes enjoys seeing that God is in the journey.
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