At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, history was made when the U.S. women's gymnastics team won the first gold medal for the U.S. in the team competition. The team members, dubbed the Magnificent Seven, became the face of the gymnastic world. Just 14 years old, Dominique Moceanu was the youngest member of the team and one of the most recognizable.
Today, the Olympic gold medalist is married with two children — Carmen, 4, and Vincent, 3 — and recently wrote a memoir, Off Balance, that details her life in and out of the gym. Moceanu writes about discovering, at the age of 26, that the younger sister she grew up with, Christina, was not her only sibling; she had another sister, Jennifer, whom her parents put up for adoption after the baby was born without legs. Although much of the book focuses on Moceanu rekindling her relationship with Jennifer, she also shares an inside look into the world of elite-level gymnastics. She makes strong accusations — that she was forced to train despite injuries, that her food was restricted during training — against her former coaches, Béla and M´rta K´rolyi, who are still heavily involved in women's gymnastics in the U.S.
Moceanu spoke to Parents.com about her time as an elite-level gymnast, her advice for parents raising athletes, forgiving her abusive father, and her relationship with her sisters.
Can you share some thoughts about your time at the Olympics? Do you think you were too young to compete at the Olympic level?
I was very hungry to compete internationally when I was 10 years old and I was good enough to compete, so that part never made me afraid or worried at all. When I was at my peak, around 12 and 13, I won my junior national and senior national titles back to back. My Russian coach at the time nurtured my strengths and talents, so I had great success and I went on to compete at the Olympic Games. It was never the age thing that affected me, and I just want to make that clear because some people wonder: Was I too young? Was I under too much pressure? If I had had nurturing coaches throughout my entire career, I could have done even better. It was only when the Karolyis took over coaching that I started to break down and have injuries. I believe you can be young and compete in gymnastics if you have a coach who is looking out for you and if there is a good gym environment where the coaches are taking care of you emotionally and physically.
You write a lot about the Karolyis, and they're well-known in the gymnastics world. What kind of feedback have you received from what you wrote in your book?
I've received overwhelming support from everyone who has read the book. Even former elite athletes have reached out and said, "Thank you for writing this. I found a little bit of healing in it myself." I even inspired some of my former teammates — one of whom wrote a blog about what she went through. Obviously this is my experience and it's unusual. Everyone has a story. If I can help others with mine, I'm happy that I put it out there. Of course there's going to be a little criticism, but the small minority who may be upset are the very people who hurt others and allowed this behavior to continue in elite women's gymnastics. These people are overlooking the fact that they need to protect the athletes. But I've received way, way more overwhelming support than negativity. A lot of people support it because they know it's true.
How do you think young athletes can be protected better?
I've teamed up with safe4athletes.org, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide an environment free from any type of bullying, harassment, or verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse. It's very important for gymnastics to be regulated by a third party that doesn't let comments go unnoticed and unchecked. People knew abuse was going on for 30 years, but they didn't say anything. I think we're light years away from defining abuse in common scenarios, but I hope my book can spark a positive change for future generations. It takes people finally speaking out, which is the only way change can occur, or else people get away with it, as we've seen in the Sandusky case. At the elite gymnastics women's level, abuse needs to be defined much, much more because coaches can get away with screaming, humiliating, and putting down gymnasts. We can't control everything, but it's so important to protect girls who are dedicating so much of their lives to gymnastics. They give up so much. You don't want them to feel, at the end of their careers, that they gave it all up and were treated horribly. That breaks my heart. We don't want our athletes leaving gymnastics so wounded and hurt that they don't want to be a part of it anymore.