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Dominique Dawes on why motherhood is harder than training for the Olympics

As she approaches 40, the former gymnast and mom-of-two talks reflects on the challenges of motherhood, getting enough exercise and getting her kids to eat right.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

It’s been 20 years since Dominique Dawes and her fellow "Magnificent Seven" gymnasts won gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics, the first U.S. team to achieve the feat.

Today, Dawes is a busy stay-at-home mom to her two daughters, Kateri, 2, and Quinn, 10 months. She and husband, Jeff Thompson, recently celebrated their third wedding anniversary, and when she is not keeping up with her kids, Dawes works as a motivational speaker, has appeared on Broadway and serves as the Goodness Ambassador for GoGo squeeZ, working to improve the nutrition habits and wellness of America’s kids.

Dawes spoke with TODAY’s Terri Peters about why motherhood is more challenging than the Olympics, how she feels about turning 40 and how she keeps herself and her daughters healthy. (Her comments were edited for space and clarity.)

Dawes with her husband, Jeff Thompson, and their daughters Kateri, 2, and Quinn, 10 months.
Dominique Dawes with her husband, Jeff Thompson, and their daughters Kateri, 2, and Quinn, 10 months.Dominique Dawes

In your recent interview with Natalie Morales, you mentioned that being an Olympian has made you a better mom. Can you tell us more about that?

DAWES: Being an Olympian — or just being an athlete — you can relate to setting goals and sticking things out because you have a love and a passion for your sport. I truly believe that my 18 years in the sport of gymnastics has helped me be a better mom — to be the mom that I am today.

In gymnastics, there were always tough days. We were always tired. You always had to get back to being focused on what the goal was that you were striving for.

Obviously, as an athlete my goal was always to qualify for the Olympics or get a scholarship or win a gold medal. But as a mom, my goal is to make sure I have happy, healthy children.

Dawes in 1996 after winning bronze on the balance beam at the World Gymnastics Championships in San Juan, Puerto Rico.JOHN MCCONNICO / ASSOCIATED PRESS

When it comes to the words that come out of my mouth, or what's on TV or the radio or kind of food that is going into my kids' bodies — sports have prepared me to think about those types of goals.

And also, to know that during those tough days, even though it’s challenging or I’m very tired, I know I’m going to persevere. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Maybe my toddler won’t destroy the house tomorrow like she did today.

In what ways is being a mom harder than training for the Olympics or being an Olympic athlete?

When you’re training for the Olympics, it’s all about you. You’re at the gym, you have to work through any issues you have with self-doubt or anxiety. But it was always about me being mentally and physically strong and listening to my coach, or finishing up the assignment and learning to persevere through difficulty.

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But when you’re a mom, you don’t have full control and you have to learn to let go. And that is very difficult for many gymnasts, because gymnasts tend to have a controlling nature and a level of perfectionism. We were always striving for that perfect 10.

Dawes and her daughters pose with gymnast Simone Biles.
Dawes and her daughters pose with Olympic gymnast Simone Biles.Dominique Dawes

Now, as a mom, I’ve had to learn to really let go of that nature of perfection, because the minute I walk in my house, the mini-tornadoes have already taken over.

I can try my hardest, but the minute I let my toddler or infant go, there are things that are going to be out of place, and I’ve had to learn to let go of that and be patient and keep focused on the most important thing: having happy, healthy children.

I realize my house is going to be a mess every now and then, my minivan is going to be a mess and my kids are going to be who they’re going to be. And I have to learn to work with them and not try to fight them on things.

Speaking of turning 40, how do you find time to stay fit and eat healthy as the mom of two small children?

I’m primarily a stay-at-home mom, and my girls and I are constantly on the go throughout the day. That really is what keeps me physically fit is that we’re not sedentary. My kids wake up early, and we always get out of the house as soon as we can because they are active and they will destroy my house.

We go for a walk to get mommy’s morning coffee, or we’ll get out and go for a walk and find a playground, or we’ll go to the nature center or find a farm or a trail to walk on. And of course, being a former gymnast, I love taking my daughters to open gym at the gymnastics gym.

I’m not finding the time right now, nor the motivation, to get to the gym and do that 30 or 60 minute regimented workout. It really is about living life and being active with my kids and obviously making smart decisions when it comes to eating or snacking.

David Boudia, Janet Evans, Cullen Jones, Dominique Dawes, Mark Spitz,
Dawes, second from right, with fellow Olympians Janet Evans, Cullen Jones, Mark Spitz and David Boudia at the 2012 London Olympics.Victoria Will / AP Images

And what about your daughters? How do you get them to eat healthy foods, move their bodies and live a healthy lifestyle?

Kids by nature want to get up and get active and move. And so I don’t have to encourage what’s natural for my kids. I just make sure I get out and give them a field or a playground to play on.

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As far as teaching them to eat healthy, I’ve recognized that mothers are their children’s first teachers in life. What we say and what we do, our children will model.

We decide what we put in our children’s bodies, so I’m out there buying healthy snacks and meals and that’s what I serve. It is a struggle, especially with my toddler, who is a picky eater.

But I want to make sure that I’m teaching these healthy habits and instilling them in my young girls now so when they’re older, they understand the importance and the benefits of eating right and being active.

"Not everyone has to train for the Olympics. My daughters can be in the sport and possibly even compete in the sport and get some beautiful benefits," Dawes (above, in 1996) said of her daughters competing in gymnastics.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Would you ever want your daughters to pursue gymnastics?

Everyone asked me that for years, and I used to always say there was no way I was putting my kids in the sport of gymnastics ... because I knew the time commitment and the emotional toll it takes on you.

But now, as a mother of two, I’m a bit more removed from the sport and I realize there are so many beautiful things about the sport.

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Not everyone has to train for the Olympics. My daughters can be in the sport and possibly even compete and receive some beautiful benefits.

The flexibility that’s taught in gymnastics, the coordination and conditioning — I want to make sure my kids have that strong foundation.

Kids need to get out there and run and be challenged. They need to work with a team and be pushed by a coach, someone other than Mom or Dad.

But there has to be balance there. They will have to recognize that faith comes first, family comes second and that friends and relationships are important.

That way, when they are in the sport and they lose — because they will lose — that they won’t feel as if their whole world has crashed down.

I want them to have a well-balanced life. That’s my main focus now as a mother.