Friday, August 18, 2000

By Selena Roberts

Only a hint of redness remained in Dominique Moceanu's brown eyes today as she calmly retraced the emotions she experienced the night before, when the leftover pixie dust she hoped to recapture from 1996 officially expired for her.

Moceanu's comeback was over. Unable to straighten her right knee during Wednesday's training session because of a bone chip that was discovered later that evening, the former sprite-sized, 14-year-old darling of the women's gold medal team in Atlanta was forced to withdraw from this weekend's United States Olympic gymnastics trials.

''I'm better today; I got all the tears out, the calling my mom and the family and the friends,'' said Moceanu, who will have surgery on her knee on Monday. ''It's a hard thing to actually grasp and realize that this is kind of over for now. Maybe I'm not going to be a two-time Olympian, but I've accomplished a lot in my career and in my life that I'm very proud of. I wouldn't take anything back.''

She will always be part of the Magnificent Seven, a member of the first American women's team to win a gold medal, part of the surreal scene four years ago that included Bela Karolyi emerging with Kerri Strug in his arms after her famed vault. Once the team's news media barnstorming ended, the gold-medal group members went their own way and Karolyi retired.

But after a timid women's team hit bottom at the 1999 world championships, Karolyi returned and one by one the old guard decided to dust off their routines. Soon, five of the seven from Atlanta were in the fold again. But only a week before Moceanu withdrew, Jaycie Phelps dropped out with a knee injury.

Today, on the eve of the women's trial preliminaries at the Fleet Center, only three of the Magnificent Seven remain: Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow. If all three are to help the United States defend its team gold, they have to be selected by a committee under subjective criteria.

Although the results of the nationals and this weekend's trials will weigh in the decision-making process, they are not binding. Experience, composure and history will be factors, as well.

While Moceanu needed a solid finish at the trials to assure her of a spot, her departure might have created an opening. If only by attrition, the mix of old and new in Sydney, Australia, next month will be at least 50-50. Unless Miller, Dawes and Chow crumble during the trials, they have a great chance to make the team, whether or not they finish in the top six.

Someone, somewhere, will be left out. Elise Ray and Kristen Maloney finished first and second at the nationals, and a strong showing at the trials should get them on the team. But what if Jamie Dantzscher, who was third at the nationals, slips to eighth at the trials? Is she out?

''You just have to do what you do well, and do it consistently,'' Dantzscher said. ''I think that's what they're really looking for. But if Shannon Miller has an off-day, after everything you know she can do in Olympic competition, what can you do?''

Moceanu was looking for a chance to prove she belonged again. For months, she trudged on as some snickered at her weight gain and wondered if she could uncover her coordination after growing 8 inches between her 14th and 18th birthdays.

After placing eighth at the nationals, she was on her way. On Tuesday, her spirits were crushed when she first felt her knee give during a practice session. She had an M.R.I., but felt relief when it came back clean.

On Wednesday, she tested her knee again, but the results were the same. After the Houston doctor who operated on her right knee a year ago compared her new M.R.I. with the one taken before her surgery, he noticed the bone chip.

''The sad part for Dominique is that she put so much into this since January,'' said Moceanu's coach, Mary Lee Tracy. ''It's been a long haul. In a quick amount of time, she did an incredible job of training. That's why it's very sad.''

It is another traumatic twist in Moceanu's life. Two years after helping the team win the gold medal, she went through a much-publicized battle with her parents over control of her finances. She ran away, then went to court to ask for an order of protection against her father. Although the family has since reconciled, the ordeal set back her career. Only in the last year had she found peace.

''I've been dealt a big deck of cards in my life at such a young age,'' Moceanu said. ''But I know things happen for a reason. You've got to have faith no matter how hard life gets sometimes.''

This is not necessarily the end of a career. In January, she will sit down and decide whether to retire. In the past, a female gymnast's career barely lasted past puberty. But Miller, at age 23, is proof of a longer life span in the sport.

''Sure, why not?'' Moceanu said of a possible return. ''You never know where the future lies.''


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