Thursday, July 11, 1996

14-year-old, 72-pound Dominique Moceanu has big shoes to fill

By Jaime Aron
Associated Press writer

A bit of Mary Lou and a lot of Nadia is how Dominique Moceanu is usually described. All that was supposed to be left for Bela Karolyi's latest gymnastics prodigy was showing up in Atlanta to receive her Olympic medal.

But five weeks before the games, Moceanu received devastating news: the pain in her right leg was more than inflammation. It was a 4-inch stress fracture.

Moceanu reacted like any 14-year-old. She cried. And cried some more.

Karolyi, the dictatorial and wildly successful coach, refused to let her feel sorry for herself. Instead, he told her to take inspiration from -- who else? -- Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci.

"Mary Lou competed five weeks after knee surgery. Nadia went into the Olympics after very badly spraining her ankle six weeks before," Karolyi said. "I think (Moceanu) can do it.

"That's a very unfortunate link and one I'd prefer not to have. But it has happened before, so we know it can be done."

A year's worth of publicity since her surprising national crown at age 13 last year built Moceanu (pronounced Mo-chee-AH-no) into the expected darling of the Atlanta Games.

Add the drama of overcoming injury to her tale, and there's no telling how high her star could rise if she can live up to the billing.

But is it unfair to put so much pressure on one so young?

"People must be realistic," said Comaneci, who like Moceanu was 14 when she set new standards by earning seven perfect 10s and three gold medals at the Montreal Games.

Comaneci has become a friend and mentor to Moceanu, with whom she shares a Romanian heritage and native tongue.

"You have to leave her a little space," Comaneci said. "Know that she is good, but not very good. Let her prove that she's better than you think."

Bart Conner, another former Olympic gold medalist now married to Comaneci, also is worried that Americans expect too much from Moceanu.

"She's not the best in the world, she's one of 10," he said. "She's not the favorite, but the press has put her in this whirlwind. If you talk to the experts, they'll tell you who is the best in the world."

Moceanu's competition will come from strong Russian, Belarussian and Romanian gymnasts and from her own U.S. teammate, 1992 medal winner Shannon Miller.

"If everyone hits their routines, she won't be the best in the world," Conner said. "But that's the thing about the Olympics -- everyone doesn't hit their routines, so she does have the ability to be a big success."

Moceanu became the can't-miss kid of 1996 shortly after her national senior national title in '95. She was youngest-ever champion and the first person to win the senior crown the year after taking the junior title.

She proved she wasn't a fluke five weeks later by finishing fifth at the world championships, best among the Americans. She also won a silver on the balance beam and helped the United States to a team bronze.

The 4-foot-6, 72-pound Moceanu was quickly dubbed "the next Nadia" because of her strong resemblance to the young Comaneci.

The difference, however, is that Comaneci looked so serious while performing. Moceanu's sparkling smile recalls Retton, the darling of the 1984 Games.

"I've never really compared myself to either of them," Moceanu said. "It would be fantastic if I could achieve the level of success those two athletes had."

Along with those comparisons, Moceanu has a wonderful story perfectly suited for pre-Olympic hype.

She was born in Los Angeles to Romanian-born parents who had been gymnasts in their homeland.

When she was only 6 months old, Moceanu was given her first gymnastics aptitude test: hanging from a clothesline her parents had strung across the kitchen.

The rope gave way before she did.

When Dominique was 3, her father, Dimitry, called Karolyi, another Romanian expatriate, to see if he was interested in coaching her. He laughed, recommended local lessons and said to call back in six years.

It actually took seven, and this time the decision was Dominique's. She had learned all about Retton, Comaneci and Karolyi, and she wanted to train under him and alongside stars of the day Kim Zmeskal and Betty Okino.

Moceanu's father moved the family from Florida to Houston.
She arrived with sloppy form and poor technique but obvious potential and a great attitude. After overcoming her initial fears and insecurity, Moceanu blossomed into the youngest member of the junior national team within seven months.

These days, her picture is everywhere in Olympic promotions. She's made the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. She's danced across the pages of Newsweek and done a handstand with her dad for People.

She's even published her own autobiography, "Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion."

Many feared the mounting publicity would lead to overwhelming pressure, as it did for another Karolyi protege, Kim Zmeskal, in '92.

But the home stretch to Atlanta instead has been paved with pain.

First, there was a problem with her left heel that forced her to skip several events. Then she began compensating for it and wound up hurting the right leg.

Before the national championships in early June, doctors told Moceanu her right tibia was inflamed.

Limited by the injury, Moceanu finished third in the all-around. She skipped the individual events to rest the leg, then two days later received word of the stress fracture.

When Olympic competition in gymnastics begins July 21, Moceanu will have had a little over five weeks to recover. Adjusting to the pain and rehabilitation hasn't been easy, but Moceanu is being driven by her coach and her own desire to be an Olympic champion.

"The old saying is that to make the steel harder, you first have to put it in the flame, then drop it in the cold water," Karolyi said.

"I tell her not to get too much down. There is a way to get out of it. You'll get over this." 

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