MAKING HISTORY [IN 1996] BY BEING THE FIRST U.S. WOMEN'S GYMNASTICS TEAM TO WIN GOLD -- it was an amazing moment. After, we were on tour for nearly two years, and the fans treated us like rock stars. Then I did "Grease" on Broadway -- I was Patty Simcox -- and moved home [to Montgomery County] and started school at College Park.
In January 2000, I called my coach and said, "I have this crazy idea." I had been in economics class daydreaming about making the Olympic team. I was 23. Part of me was hoping she would say, "Give it up." But she said, "I want to see you at practice tomorrow." I had not worked out in over a year. It was embarrassing -- an Olympic gold medalist who was not able to do the basic tricks anymore. Even swinging on the bars was hard because I had lost all the callouses on my hands. I'd started gymnastics when I was 6, but it wasn't until I had to learn it all again that I realized, "This is hard." I gained a whole new respect for [it].
Mentally, it was very difficult to stay in the sport with all these young kids. I was struggling. I went out of town for work and told my coach, "Don't worry, I'm going to work out." But I'd go to the gym and sit on the mat talking to my friend. My coach would call and say, "How's it going?" and I'd say, "I'm getting there." That went on for a couple of weeks. I think I was focusing way too much on, "I've passed my prime" or, "What if I don't qualify?"
It wasn't until I did an interview and said I was training for the Olympics that I really started to take it seriously. I wanted to make sure my actions were matching up. I started eating better, getting more sleep, going to the gym. When I made the team, it was a proud moment.
That Olympics was for me and for my fans. It was a great way to end my career, but during those Games, I knew that I was done. I was losing the zest, the passion. I was very happy to hang up the leotard. But I get an opportunity to relive the experience every time I give a speech.
It's always a thrill to rethink the experience -- how it has helped shape me and how I can use it to be more inspired, more fulfilled and more driven today.
Dawes is a motivational speaker and teaches gymnastics part time. She also will cover the 2008 Olympic Games as an analyst for Yahoo. In June, the 1996 women's gymnastics team was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
PHOTOS: Current Photography by Keith Barraclough, 1996 Photograph by Doug Pensinger/Allsport/Getty Images; AUDIO: Whitney Shefte WEB EDITOR: Amanda McGrath - washingtonpost.com