From Olympian to 'Top Chef' finalist: How Dawn Burrell's athletic career fueled her culinary stardom

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Dawn Burrell stood in front of Padma Lakshmi and awaited the verdict. Burrell had just cooked, to that point, the most important meal of her life. With a trip to the “Top Chef” finale on the line, Burrell waited nervously to see if she would become the latest chef to be told to pack her knives and go.

Lakshmi braced the competitors for the bad news that was coming. “Well, this next part is very, very hard,” she said while looking at Burrell and Gabe Erales. Despite cooking excellent food, one of the two would be sent home, ending their pursuit of the life-changing title of being named “Top Chef.”

Lakshmi took a lengthy pause before calling Burrell’s name, “Dawn.” For one tense, nerve-wracking, exhilarating moment, it appeared Burrell’s time on the show was over. After another pause, Lakshmi delivered the news, “… and Gabe, pack your bags, you’re both going to the finale.” Burrell emerged from another high-stress moment on top.

Burrell should be used to that by now. Before becoming a chef and emerging as a breakout star on Season 18 of “Top Chef,” Burrell made a name for herself in track and field, where she represented the United States at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Burrell’s background as an Olympian has been a major storyline throughout her run on “Top Chef.” The skills that made her one of the best athletes in the world — her competitive drive, tenacity and ability to adapt on the fly — are the same ones she’s used to reach the pinnacle of another profession. 

“Every positive trait that I have, I can attribute it to being an athlete,” Burrell told Yahoo Sports. “My ability to stay in it, to embrace the pressure that is in that moment, all comes from my career as an athlete.”

While cooking remains her focus now, track and field is still Burrell’s first love. She remains connected to the sport through her nephew, and Leroy’s son, Cameron Burrell, who is also a track and field athlete. Dawn said she will be watching this year’s athletes compete at the Olympics “because my heart still belongs in track and field.”

Though Burrell was initially unaware of the International Olympic Committee’s ban on protests, she spoke out against the short-sightedness of the policy.

“I’m wondering if anyone has learned anything from banning Colin Kaepernick,” Burrell said. “I don’t think … a person who has a platform should be silenced in that way. I think that we should be able to do our part to invoke change. And if you take this platform from us, then what can we utilize to spark change. Freedom of speech is very real and I think that banning protests is shortsighted.”

Burrell will watch the Olympics, but the rest of her time will be devoted to her next endeavor. Burrell teamed up with chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s Hospitality Group to open a new restaurant in Houston called “Late August.” It will be the first time in her career Burrell will hold an ownership stake in a restaurant.

“It feels really good to be able to express myself completely within a restaurant concept,” she said.

Any fan who has watched “Top Chef” knows how hectic it can be to open up a restaurant. There’s a reason the show’s annual “restaurant wars” episode, which features chefs creating, designing and cooking food for a brand new restaurant, is its most iconic challenge. It’s stressful. It’s chaotic. It’s thrilling.

In other words, it’s exactly what Dawn Burrell has been preparing for her whole life.