Photo Credit: Eric Feferberg/Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images
1996 was a spectacular year of firsts for U.S. gymnastics – the first American women's team to win Olympic gold – they were dubbed the “Magnificent Seven,” and the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics -- Dominique Moceanu at the age of 14! Oh, how she captured our hearts! She had the looks and charm of a kid but the steely determination of someone much older than her years.
When I heard we had a chance to interview her, I jumped at the opportunity and plunged into her memoir, Off Balance. And then, my heart started breaking as I read about her painful recollections of her years competing at the elite level.
“There’s a lot of things I kept inside for fear of retribution,” Dominique told me during our interview. “I was scared of a lot of things, but I also had this dream of Olympic gold and I wanted to live up to that expectation that I also placed on myself. That was a dream of mine since I was 9-years-old.”
The married mom of two had some pretty harsh words for her former coaches, including Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women’s team coordinator, and her husband Bela. “They hit me in a lot of personal places,” said Moceanu. “They would humiliate me about my weight. For a small child, a prepubescent teenager, those humiliation and intimidation tactics made me afraid.”
Asked to respond to Dominique’s charges, the couple, through a spokesman for USA Gymnastics, told iVillage, “We have known Dominique since she was a young gymnast, and we worked with her to achieve her dreams. We are disappointed that Dominique’s memories are negative, and we wish her success in her life and joy with her family.”
Moceanu said she hopes her book will open parents’ eyes to what life can be like at the elite level of any sport. “I think it’s a cautionary tale in some aspects because it teaches the parents to question the coach a little bit.” She also hopes her story might inspire girls who are competing at the highest level to speak up. “It’s going to take a little time because when you are in the sport, you're afraid of a backlash, you’re afraid if you speak up, will they not help put you on an Olympic team?”
So what if her kids ever want to pursue gymnastics? Would she discourage them? No, she says. She loves the sport and met her husband, a former gymnast now a foot and ankle surgeon, Dr. Michael Canales, through gymnastics. “They’re already gymnasts. Gymnastics is the greatest sport in the world, and it’s never ever been about the sport,” said Moceanu. “I will support the sport always and I just want to make sure that the children are having a healthy and good experience. I want their emotional and physical well-being to be placed first, and not have this mentality of win at all costs...I’m against that, and I think most parents would be.”
Kelly Wallace, a mom of two, is Chief Correspondent of iVillage and will be in London covering the 2012 Summer Games for iVillage and NBCOlympics.com. Follow Kelly throughout the Games on Twitter (@kellywallacetv).
The cost of Kelly Wallace’s travel to London and accommodation was paid by Procter & Gamble.