Thursday, August 17, 1995

If Dominique Moceanu were to win the 1996 Olympic all-around title, it would only be fitting -- the perfect conclusion to a best seller. The rest of the ingredients are already there -- the Romanian immigrant parents, themselves former gymnasts; their determination that their daughter should follow in their footsteps; the family's move to Houston, when Dominique was 9, just so she could train under the legendary coach Bela Karolyi, and, of course, Dominique herself, whose personality and charm make one believe she was born to be a star.

This year, Moceanu, the 1994 United States junior national champion, stepped up to the big leagues. Now a senior, the 13-year-old has competed successfully against the likes of Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes, who were favored as competition got under way tonight at the United States National Championships in the Superdome.

The 18-year-old Miller squeezed by Moceanu by .150 points -- 39.275 to 39.125 -- in the compulsory round tonight, as both gymnasts performed solidly.

They were followed by Jaycie Phelps of Cincinnati at 38.975, the 1992 Olympian Kerri Strug at 38.70 and Amanda Borden at 38.675. Dawes, a 1992 Olympian and last year's national champion, had three wobbles on the beam and finished sixth with 38.550.

Moceanu's success comes as no surprise to her father, Dumitru, 40, and mother, Camelia, 34, who were themselves gymnasts in their native Romania. Even before the couple immigrated to the United States in 1980 and settled in California, the father had vowed that his first child would be a gymnast.

"If not a gymnast, then something else, but an athlete," he said. "I wanted her to have the discipline."

After Dominique was born in 1981 -- in Hollywood -- Moceanu kept his word. When his daughter was 3, he would test her strength by seeing how long she could hang from a clothesline.

"The line broke before she let go," he said.

Moceanu, convinced he had something, called Karolyi in Houston and asked if he would take Dominique as a student. Karolyi, the former national coach in Romania, who had defected to the United States years earlier, refused, saying she was too young, and Dominique's parents enrolled her in a gym elsewhere. Moceanu called Karolyi again in 1990, and soon after moved his family to Houston. Within a year, Dominique became the youngest gymnast ever to be named to the junior national team.

Camelia Moceanu said much of her daughter's success can be attributed to Karolyi.

"Everything you do, if you want to reach perfection, you have to work hard," she said. "He makes her give 100 percent every day."

According to Karolyi, Moceanu has the makings of a star.

"Her physical capabilities are great, and she has the ideal body for gymnastics -- well-proportioned," he said. "But I think the most positive thing about Dominique is her personality. She's like a little bird, always a smile on her face. That's what is needed in the sport."

For Moceanu, the smile comes naturally. "I really enjoy competing, and I'm having fun," she said. "That's what it's all about. If that's what people remember me for, then that's great."

Moceanu is in perfect position heading into 1996. Because she is young, she is not under pressure to win. She needs only to perform well over the next year to be considered a top contender for the Olympic team and all-around title.

Although Moceanu could very well win the United States championships, Karolyi would prefer she remain in the shadows a bit longer.

"I don't want her to be great too early, and have that pressure like Kim did," he said, referring to Kim Zmeskal, who was a world champion at 15 but faltered in the Barcelona Olympics. "I want her to just have a solid competition, so we can build up. Slow, steady preparation, that's our strategy for '96."

Moceanu is mindful of her Romanian roots. She knows well the story of Nadia Comaneci, who is now a friend of hers. Moceanu's loyalties, however, lay elsewhere.

"I love the Romanian team, and I love Nadia, but I'm for the U.S.A.," she said. "I'm just doing the American thing."


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