The Rise And Dominance Of Black Gymnasts

August 25, 2015  |  

Awesome Dawesome is what they called her – better known as gymnast and “Magnificent Seven” Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes.  A hometown hero and one of my favorite athletes, I remember recording her competitions on VHS when I was a kid. I prayed to the gymnastics gods to make me just as fast, talented and fierce as she was.  We had an awful lot in common, after all.  I figured all I needed to do was learn the sport real quick, but I was a little too old when I finally enrolled in a class at the very gym where Dawes used to train.  And classes weren’t exactly cheap, so thus ended my athletic career before it even began.

At that time in the early to mid-‘90s, Dominique Dawes was the only prominent Black gymnast on the scene.  To watch her perform was a thing of beauty.  No one moved like she did, especially on the floor exercises.  I’m sure Dawes didn’t realize the impact she would have on other girls (and boys) of color who dreamed of tumbling and twisting at seemingly impossible heights, just like she did.  But her presence and dominance in a sport that is still primarily White helped pave the way for numerous athletes of color.  And with a slew of firsts under her belt – she was one of the first African-American female gymnasts to compete and qualify for an Olympic games in 1992, and the first to win an individual medal when she took home the bronze at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta for her floor routine – she showed that there was still lots of ground to cover.

Since Dawes, we’ve seen gymnasts like Lloimincia Hall, a recent Louisiana State University graduate who competed in the NCAA.  The first time I saw Hall perform at a televised competition I asked myself, “Who is this girl?”  Standing at just 4 feet and 11 inches, Hall is not only a powerhouse, but equal parts gymnast and cheerleader.  To say she gets the crowd revved up during her performances would be an understatement.  Her musical choices are far different and more lively than any other gymnast’s, and the energy she brings to the floor is contagious.  A four-time All-American and three-time reigning SEC Floor Exercise Champion, Hall holds the LSU record for most career perfect 10.0 scores on the floor.

If you don’t know Hall, here’s a gymnast who has become a household name: Gabby Douglas.  She’s competed in U.S. and world championships for quite some time, but for many of us, Douglas first came to our attention at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.  Qualifying for the Olympic trials, Douglas landed the only secure spot on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team after placing first in all-around rankings.  Douglas was the first African-American since Dominque Dawes to make the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team.  And in yet another first, Douglas was the first African-American gymnast (or woman of color, period) in the history of the Olympic games to win gold in the individual all-around.  And, of course, Douglas also took home a gold medal alongside her U.S. teammates.  With her success and popularity came a Lifetime television movie, The Gabby Douglas Story.  The gymnast also graced countless magazine covers, including Time, Sports Illustrated and Essence.  She even found time to release a book: Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith.

The American public ate Gabby up, and rightfully so.  This girl was on fire.  But for all the positivity and light that was shone on Douglas’ obvious talents, the gymnast also shared her less than positive experiences while training.  She made known the racism and bullying she faced by fellow gymnasts at Excalibur Gymnastics in Virginia Beach, a claim that the gym vehemently denied.  And who can forget the criticism Douglas received over her supposedly unkempt hair?  We all know the significance and representation of hair in the Black community. But this, in the midst of her meteoric, history-making rise, never should have been an issue on the social media or national news front.  But like the champ she is, Douglas silenced her critics by telling them they needn’t be concerned about the state of her hair, ‘cause she sure wasn’t.  Needless to say, racism, hair – these aren’t issues that non-Black gymnasts have to contend with, which shows there’s still plenty ground to be broken and lessons to be learned.

Last week, all of my fond childhood memories of watching Dominique Dawes came rushing back when I saw Simone Biles compete at the World Gymnastics Championships.  This was the first I had ever seen or heard of her, but she has won the title three times now. After earning a near-perfect score for one of the most difficult vaults that women’s gymnasts perform, it’s easy to see why.  I expect to see both Biles and Douglas at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next year.  If they qualify for the team, and I have no doubt that they will, it’ll be the first time that two African Americans are on a U.S. women’s gymnastics team at the same time.

Dawes, Hall, Douglas, Biles – these gymnasts don’t know whose lives they’ll touch or who they’ll inspire.  Their presence and sportsmanship means more than they’ll ever know and opens doors for more minority representation in the sport of gymnastics.  I thank them for their leadership.

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