As gymnasts tumble onto the 2021 Tokyo Olympic stage, you may be dazzled by their flips and spins. You may be stunned by their grace under pressure. You may also wonder ... what's with all the chalk?
To answer all your most-Googled gymnastics questions, we turned to a pro. You know her as Awesome Dawesome, the dynamo who was a clutch part of the 1996 Magnificent Seven gymnastics team, now 25 years ago.
Yes, Kerri Strug had the most dramatic moment of the entire games when she clinched the gold team medal with her vault, performed with an injured ankle. But the masterful Dominique Dawes, 44, who was first Black person to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics, was intensity and perfection incarnate, on the uneven bars and the balance beam.
We asked Dawes, now the owner of the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy in her native Maryland, to answer some of your most common questions related to her sport for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Why do gymnasts use chalk?
"We use chalk mainly to help with the grip of whatever we're doing. If it's the uneven parallel bars, we will use chalk to really help. It's easier to grip with chalk. It adds a little bit of friction to things, especially if you're wearing grips," says Dawes. "And then also we use chalk on the balance beams so that our feet aren't as slippery, especially if you're sweating."
Why do gymnasts use honey?
Men who do swings on the parallel bars require a strong, solid grip. And honey can help with the stickiness factor. Some of the men even use Karo syrup. Women, on the other hand, mostly rely on chalk to help absorb sweat and help them with grip and movement.
“Some athletes use honey because you’re looking for more friction or stickiness on the uneven bars. Or they will use a pasty sugar water to create water to create that stickiness,” says Dawes. “I never used it. Americans use leather grips, chalks, and water, on the uneven bars.”
Why do gymnasts wear leotards?
"Because really when I started in the sport in the eighties, that was your option — to wear a leotard. I want to push unitards on kids because I think they would feel a lot more comfortable and I really do want to take away the sexualization of our sport. So we wear the leotards cause that's all we know, but I hope that it does change into unitards."
How is a move named for a gymnast like Simone Biles?
It’s pretty impressive to have a move, or multiple moves, named after you. In order to have that happen, a gymnast must submit the move for consideration and land it at a major competition. Simone Biles already has four moves named after her, on the floor, on vault, and on the balance beam.
“You do that by being the first to complete the move in a world championship or an Olympic games. It doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Dawes. “You can get a deduction. But you get the name of the skill.”
In Tokyo, the stands are mostly empty. Does not having fans or family there impact performance?
“Greatly. I’ve been asked this many times. It didn’t feel complete that you didn’t hear the enthusiasm of the fans. You can see it in the performances,” says Dawes. “The fans help with the adrenaline rush.”
Why do gymnasts retire so early?
"Physically it takes a toll on someone's young body and also emotionally, it’s a lot. There’s a lot of pressure and there's a huge commitment. And I think once you get a taste of life outside of gymnastics, you realize, I have not been living life. I've been training in this box of a gym my whole life. And I think that's why when people retire after they graduate high school, they go off and they have phenomenal careers in college. Especially if they get a college scholarship, they have a great experience. And many of them end up regaining the love of the sport back."
Why do gymnasts run with straight arms?
"I think because our run is not about speed. It's a little bit more about control. It's about to still to be able to get speed, but to control the speed."
Why do gymnasts tape their hands?
"We tape our hands usually because we have rips underneath or we're trying to prevent getting rips that will rip and bleed. And they are very painful on the uneven parallel bars, but also people will tape hands or wrists because they're experiencing a little bit of pain in their wrist and they want to kind of limit the range of motion. But the main reason is because of friction on bars and to kind of lessen the pain of the rips."
You were the absolute queen on uneven bars. How do gymnasts not get dizzy on bars or beam?
"That’s a funny question. You’re looking in between your hands and when you flip, you're not looking at the ceiling. If I saw the ceiling while I was flipping above the bar, I would probably freak out. I guess I was closing my eyes. So that helps with not getting dizzy, I guess."
How do you do so many leaps in a row on the beam without falling off and losing your balance?
"You just really keep your focus on the end of the balance beam. So if you're upside down, you're looking down the beam looking where you're traveling to, and that's how you kind of learn to keep more control and stay focused on safety. People are just amazed at what we are able to do from the flips and twists on the floor to the strength that it entails to do what we do on the uneven parallel bars to seeing someone flip on a four inch balance, being four feet off the ground."
Why do gymnasts wear so much makeup in competition?
"Back in my day I would actually use fairy dust — we would sprinkle fairy dust on my hair and things like that. I didn't really use a lot of makeup back in the day today. I think our culture is very much caught up in social media and it would be a tough time to grow up as a young person. You have to always be on and on camera and watched and under a microscope and looking for those likes or those followers. So I think they wear makeup probably for that reason. Because there’s a huge audience."
What’s the most common question you get asked yourself, as a former Olympian?
"I think the number one question I get asked is if I can still flip — I can definitely still flip, but it's very basic stuff. I cannot do my Olympic routines and I cannot fathom that people actually believe I can still do what I used to do in my teens."
When folks watch gymnasts at the Olympics, what’s something you want them to know?
"Remember they're more than just gymnasts. I think a lot of gymnasts have struggled with their identity outside of the sport. Swimmers have talked about having their identities wrapped up in the sport and that's the same for gymnasts. And I hope that fans recognize that these are young girls. These are children, they are children out there that have committed and sacrificed their whole childhood for this one moment that lasts only a few minutes, a few minutes on the apparatus in front of the whole world. And so when people make a mistake, just recognize that this is a young kid and to see them as their own son or daughter."