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.
Would you allow your children to compete in a sport at an elite level?
Yes, if they have the right coaches, which my husband, Mike, and I have talked about. I want to make sure the coach places our children's emotional and physical well-being above everything else and not have a win-at-all-cost mentality. My husband and I believe that if you treat a child well and nurture his talent and physical ability, in a healthy environment, the child will succeed no matter what. The most important thing is to see who is coaching and influencing the children. Don't hand over 100 percent authority, and check up with the coaches. See what their philosophies and discipline terms are. You have to ask your children, "How are you being treated in the gym?" and define abuse and common scenarios so they understand. These are important things that we don't talk to our children about enough. Most kids get scared and embarrassed if something happens. They don't want to be ostracized by their teammates or get a coach in trouble. They're so young and vulnerable, and they don't want to rock the boat. But the most important thing is not to put kids at any risk for harm.
I like that you emphasize that it's not the sport that's a problem. I think gymnastics, especially, gets a bad rap for having a lot of pressure.
We place pressure on ourselves as elite-level athletes. You want to be the best. Gymnastics is the greatest sport in the world and one of the hardest, but we have to watch out for domineering male figures who try to belittle and scream at young girls. It's inappropriate! I've seen it so many times and people just accept the behavior. That's when it's time to say, "Okay, this has gone on long enough."
In your book, you write: "In hindsight, I realize that alongside my hard work, it was my parents' unwavering confidence in me, year after year, that propelled my success and allowed me to reach my goals. It's a trait that I see in myself as a parent today." How do you make sure to support your children in a positive way? It wasn't always positive when your parents were raising you.
I'm going to be much more in tune with their emotions and feelings and make sure that I explain to them, "Look, this is how it should be in the gym. If anything ever goes the opposite direction, if you feel in any way that you're being threatened or intimidated, tell me and I will nip it in the bud." My husband was a competitive collegiate athlete, so we make sure our kids remain healthy and happy. It's important for a parent to be observant of their child's behavior, body language, and mannerisms. As a parent, you need to have open communication with your child.
Your father wasn't always able to protect you, but you were able to forgive him before he passed away. How were you able to do that?
I realized that my father came from a different world and culture, and he came from an abusive father. They were never able to break the cycle. My mother came from an abusive father as well. She was passive and so mellow; she just wanted the best. It was mostly my father who was domineering. At the end of his life, when he started getting ill with cancer, I realized that I wanted to start mending our relationship. When I started dating my husband, my father really liked him. Mike understood my father in ways that maybe other people wouldn't have, and he always gave him the benefit of the doubt. I saw a softer side to my father. Once I left gymnastics, he realized I was becoming a woman and I was defending what I believed in. We started to mend things little by little. I didn't want him to leave this world not knowing that I loved him and forgave him, because we all needed to move forward as a family. He was able to walk me down the aisle at my wedding and I was very thankful. I also wanted him to enjoy being a grandparent, so he got to hold his first grandchild, Carmen.
It's very impressive that you were able to forgive him.
No, it's not — you have to make a conscious decision to improve. If you don't make a conscious decision to make things better, they're not going to get better. But it's not something that happens overnight; you have to work at it with time. I also forgave the Karolyis, but not for their sake. I did it for my sake so I could move forward with my life and talk about that time freely.
Another big part of your book is the relationship with your long-lost sister, Jennifer. What is that relationship like today?
It's still growing and we're always finding out new things about each other. We're making an effort to stay in touch as much as possible. I always wanted sisters growing up, so to have another one is a bonus. We have a really good relationship, all three of us sisters. We have unconditional love for one another and we want to see each other succeed. That's what sisterhood is for; that's what family is for.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.