There was something exceptional about Dominique Dawes early on, but still, the critics whispered.
Her look wasn't quite right, some said. Maybe it was those legs, so bowed. Or those knees, so knobby. Sometimes it was her hair, too askew. But none of the critics would be bold enough to hint that a major difference in Dawes' look was her color.
Nationally, there have been few black gymnasts, comparable to the ratio of blacks in figure skating. In Dawes, though, no one could deny the power in her tumbling, the height of her vaults. Later, few could deny the depths she reached internally to blend into a white sport.
Now, no one can deny Dawes.
At last year's national championships, Dawes, 18, not only won the title, she won all four individual events, the first female gymnast to do that in 25 years. She is this country's first black national gymnastic champion and the first African American gymnast to compete in an Olympics, which she did in 1992.
She currently is ranked third in the world.
"Criticism doesn't affect me, " Dawes says. "I just do the best job I can do."
Dawes was not a star in Barcelona, finishing 26th behind her famous teammates, Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller. Her breakthrough came at the 1993 World Championships in England, when she surprisingly led the competition going into the final event, even ahead of Miller, her constant nemesis.
"All she had to do was land both vaults, and she would have won at least a bronze medal," said Dwight Normile, editor of International Gymnast magazine. "But she went for a more difficult vault both times, fell on the second one and finished fourth. Still, people respected that she went for it, that she took the risk to get the reward."
The same thing happened at last year's World Championships in Australia. Dawes would have medaled, but she tried more difficult vaults, fell and finished fifth. Both times, Miller won.
"Those were the vaults I had prepared for," Dawes says, "so I did them."
With Dawes' critics now narrowed in their subject matter, about the only thing left was the low level of difficulty on her bar routine. Even after the national championships last August, when Dawes swept every event, won the title and finally beat Miller, the critics persisted.
"So later that year in Dortmund, Germany, at the World (team) Championships, she adds the most amazing release move," Normile said.
And that has seemed to silence most everybody.
"She is just cleaner," said Kelli Hill, her coach at Hill's Angels in Gaithersburg, Md., which is near Dawes' home in Silver Spring.
"It was just time."
It's Tuesday night in Seattle, and Dawes is dressed in a warm-up suit and tennis shoes, seemingly oblivious to the fact she is having dinner at the upscale Space Needle. She has just flown in from Indianapolis, where she attended a banquet the night before as a finalist for the Sullivan Award, given to the nation's top amateur athlete. Olympic speedskater Dan Jansen won.
McDonald's, which sponsored the dinner to honor Dawes with its own award, could have held the affair across the street from the Space Needle at one of their restaurants, but Dawes might have had some trouble ordering.
Through the years, she has devised a nutritional plan that includes the same foods day after day, and she says she never gets bored with them. Daily, she eats three egg whites for protein, drinks skim milk for calcium and has an array of cereal, pancakes and toast, "Low-fat even if it costs $2 a loaf," she says, for carbohydrates.
She doesn't eat meat ("Americans already eat too much meat"), loves vegetables, stays away from fruit and didn't flinch when the waitress brought around a tray of decadent desserts. "I don't really like desserts," she says.
"On the weekends, my friends won't let me eat this way; they think it's boring. So we compromise and still eat well--chicken and pasta and stuff."
Even with the long hours she trains in the gym, Dawes finds time to have outside interests, and that is the reason McDonald's honored Dawes with a Balancing It All award. Her best friends are former gymnasts who no longer train, and she likes that because she can talk with them about other things. "I am friends with everybody at the gym, but I don't hang around with them," she says.
She signed a letter of intent for Stanford, but decided to hold off attending until the fall of 1996--after the Olympics--and will probably major in performing arts. At Gaithersburg High, from which she graduated last year, Dawes was on the honor roll and said one of the main reasons she chose Stanford was for academics. She will not compete at Stanford, however, which allows her to accept money now for performances and endorsements.
Meanwhile, as she trains for the Atlanta Olympics, Dawes says she is going to take a few courses at the University of Maryland, which may include a foreign language. "I am going to move into the dorms," she said. "It will help keep my mind on something other than the Olympics. I think it will be good."
Dawes will be 19 by the time of the 1996 Olympics, old by gymnastics standards. But no one is hinting that she is past her prime.
It is as if suddenly, the critics are full of praise. But for Dawes, it wasn't sudden.
She has been training with Hill since she was a tot, even living with her for a time before the 1992 Olympics. Hill says there have been the normal obstacles, but doesn't believe that Dawes' race has added any. She explains the criticism simply.
"Her toes weren't pointed and her legs weren't straight," Hill says. "If there was prejudice, I don't think she would be the national champion."
Dawes' aunt, Thelma Smith, says her niece wouldn't pay attention to prejudice anyway, because that is just the way she is.
"If it's there, she just ignores it," says Smith, who lives near Dawes in Silver Spring. "She has peace of mind.
"If there are any bad vibes, she doesn't feel it. She just likes everything and thinks everybody is hunky dory. That's just the inner her. She doesn't let anything worry her, she just goes on and lets it happen as it may. But if she says she is going to do something and she is going to win, she doesn't stop until she does.
"And another thing, she likes to stay on her diet.
"Nobody can get her off her diet food."