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Dominique Dawes talks Simone Biles, family and courage

The Olympian kicks off Renovation Across the Nation initiative at Boys & Girls Club of Harlem

It’s an early Tuesday morning in New York City. More than 200 people are gathered at the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem. Saws and hammers can be heard. Right in the midst of the crowd is Olympian Dominique Dawes sporting a hard hat, and she’s in on some of the construction.

At first glance, one would think Dawes is one of many celebrities who grew up in a Boys & Girls Club. But she’s a longtime friend. She was on hand for the kickoff of Renovation Across the Nation, a $2.5 million partnership initiative with Lowe’s and Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA).

The home improvement and appliance store is renovating 50 clubs across the country – one in each state. Each club will receive a $50,000 grant to help refresh, enhance or expand BGCA facilities. The revitalization effort will enhance both the surroundings and the experience for club members and also help to drive new membership for youths.

“I’m actually not a product of the Boys & Girls Club,” Dawes told The Undefeated. “I have just been doing motivational speaking for over 20 years and I got invited to a number of steak and burger dinners where I would meet such phenomenal youth … I would be so captivated and motivated by them that I just kept getting invited back and became an honorary member of the Boys & Girls Club, which I am very excited about.”

Although Dawes was not involved in a club as a child, the club environment represents a place of solace that she experienced growing up.

“The Boys & Girls Club is an organization that is definitely near and dear to my heart because they do give young kids a positive environment. They give young kids positive role models and that’s how I was able to become successful in the world of sports,” she stressed. “I was at the gymnastics gym about 35 hours a week for nearly 18 years of my life and I was constantly surrounded by positive role models and all of my coaches that touched me along the way. And that’s no different than the experience of the young kids are experiencing at the Boys & Girls Club each and every day.”

Millions of kids across the country participate in Boys & Girls Clubs, so back to school means more for them than most. It means it’s time to spend their time after school learning daily fundamentals.

Dawes understands the value of the club experience.

The gold medalist vaulted her way into hearts across the nation 20 years ago when she and the “Magnificent Seven” took home the gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. They were the first U.S. team to take the team gold medal. Dawes is known as the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics. In the 1992 Olympics, the team won bronze, and Dawes and teammate Betty Okino became the first African-American women to win an Olympic individual gymnastics medal.

It’s 20 years later and Dawes is a stay-at-home mom to her daughters Kateri, 2, and Quinn, 11 months. She’s been married to Jeff Thompson for three years.

“My day always begins with prayer, my day always ends in prayer,” Dawes said. “I feel very blessed, honestly, to be married and I feel blessed to have two beautiful, amazing young girls.

“I primarily spend much of my day now at home with my girls. And I tell everyone that I am the most exhausted that I have ever been and I would honestly think it would be easier to train for a fourth Olympics than to do what I am doing on a daily basis, which is what thousands and thousands of women do all the time, but it is something I did not have an appreciation for or an understanding of, until I experienced it myself. It is something that I look forward to each and every morning.”

Dawes loves her experience as a mother.

“We are constantly out of the house first thing in the morning. “When my kids get up we go for a walk, we do dancing, dance parties at the home, however I can’t really dance. I’ll flip with my kids, just little rolls and things like that,” she said. “Now I am climbing and going down slides, and I never realized how difficult the monkey bars are and how in great shape we were in when we were kids.”

She works as a motivational speaker and she is seen by many as a mentor. That mentorship has taken her through many endeavors with kids, and one organization she has high regards for is the Boys & Girls Club initiative.

Boys & Girls Clubs across the globe are known for creating an environment for children that is centered on inspiration, strength and hope. Dawes knows this mantra because her life has been centered on determination, dedication and desire.

The Harlem club has served children for three decades in a local church. With the Renovation Across the Nation initiative, the club will have a dedicated youth facility to serve as its primary hub, allowing it to provide and administer community-based services.

James Frison, director of community relations for Lowe’s, said this project is important to him and he appreciates Dawes’ involvement.

“For me personally, it’s really an opportunity to demonstrate our company values of helping people wherever they live and making a difference in somebody’s day every day, and so to see these kids and the impact we are having and allowing them to have great futures is just something that you have to experience, but I really, really enjoy this work,” Frison said.

According to the club’s website, it offers education programs and career programs, character and leadership programs, health and life skills initiatives as well as sports, fitness and recreation programs.

“That’s why I love the work that I am doing with the Boys & Girls Club, because there is a lot of kids, 11 million kids, that do not have a positive place to go after school, and they are looking for that positive environment where they can develop their talents, realize their gifts and reach their full potential,” Dawes said. “The gymnastics gym really was my Boys & Girls Club for me, starting at the age of 6 years old and I did not walk out of that gym until I was nearly 24 years old, three Olympics later. And I think the gymnastics gym was where I developed my true guts and talents.”

Dawes said she was reminded in the gym that she was very talented and that she could take gymnastics to another level.

“Though there was a lot of pressure, it was positive pressure, it was pressure of people saying, ‘You are gifted. You have got to work harder. You have got to believe a little bit more because there is a difference you can make and there’s barriers you can break down.’ ”

Dawes said gymnast Simone Biles, who won gold at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, was indeed a role model for young girls.

Dawes on Simone Biles

“I just have to say Simone Biles is truly my little hero; she is amazing, she is the best gymnast that I have ever seen out there. And I would never think that a female or a male gymnast would be doing the spectacular gymnastics that she is doing today.

“She is 19 years old, walked away from these Olympic games with four gold medals, well deserved; a bronze on the balance beam only because she made a major mistake,” said Dawes. “Like, the girl could have had five gold medals; it was just spectacular to watch and to know that at the end, she was carrying our flag during the closing ceremonies, which is something that I wanted her to do.

“I had an opportunity, when I was doing a little bit of work during the Olympics on GMA [Good Morning America on ABC], and at the end I was able to speak with her off air and I said the one thing I would love for you to do is to stay for closing ceremonies and she said, ‘Don’t worry, I will.’

“And she was there holding the American flag and it was something that many Olympic gymnasts are not able to do. We don’t go to opening ceremonies and we usually leave before closing ceremonies. And that’s one thing that I regret throughout my three Olympics, that I never got an opportunity to partake as an athlete and she did. I am so proud of her for that.”

Dawes said she would tell girls to not strive to be like her but to be the best they could and to not to compare themselves to anyone else, or mold themselves after someone else.

Dawes’ advice to young gymnasts: “You can learn from someone else. You can model yourself, a bit of your behavior after someone else, but to look in the mirror, whoever she is, to say that ‘I am going to be the best that I can be each and every day. I am going to learn from Dominique. I am going to learn from Simone’ or other role models that she may have in life, but I want her to always strive to be the best that she can be.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.