Friday, July 30, 2004

By Scott Cottos

The questions regarding American success in the Athens Olympics grow all the time. Will Michael Phelps be dominant in the swimming pool? Will the youngest-ever Dream Team be able to win gold in men’s basketball? Will the women’s gymnastics team live up to the hype and come away with gold?

One need look just a bit to the east for some perspective on the ability of this year’s gymnasts and the situation they face. Dominique Moceanu is now a Cleveland-area resident, attending college and coaching at Gymnastics World in Broadview Heights.

Next month, she will be in Athens assisting Sports Illustrated and serving as an ambassador for USA Gymnastics.

Her credentials as a gymnastics authority include being the U.S. all-around champion in 1995 and a member of the American’s gold-medal-winning Magnificent Seven in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

In a telephone conversation this week, Moceanu never used the word “gold” in relation to this year’s team but she did say she considered the Americans to be definite medal contenders.

“They’re wonderful,” she said. “They selected a very good team, and it was chosen strategically. That’s why Mo (Bhardwaj) and Annia (Hatch) were picked, for the vault.”

The vault provided the signature moment of the United States’ team win in 1996, with Kerri Strug working through torn ligaments in her left ankle to stick a landing.

It turned out to be a life-changing moment for all of the Mag Seven. For her part, Moceanu, then 14, was fourth in the individual floor exercise and 11th in the all-around of team competition. She acknowledged that she wished she had turned in a better performance, but she was injured as well, having had to petition her way onto the Olympic team due to missing time with a leg injury. She will, however, always be recognized as the youngest member of a gold medal-winning team. Rule changes since then have made the minimum age 16.

“It was definitely one of the best moments of my life,” Moceanu said of the Americans’ championship. “We made history on July 27, 1996. It didn’t sink in until later, though, when I was getting thousands of letters and people were sending me wedding rings. People were going nuts. But it couldn’t have been more perfect.”

Now, it’s the gymnasts who have to prevent just such an occurrence, Moceanu said.

“Less than a month away, this is the most critical time,” she said. “It’s very stressful because you’re constantly thinking about doing the best routines of your life.”

While gymnastics is a highly individualized sport, the Olympics bring team and national pride into play.

“You don’t want to let yourself down, but you also don’t want to let your teammates and your country down,” Moceanu said.

Moceanu said that in pre-Olympics 1996, she found herself in a situation in which she wanted some relief from the stress without losing her edge.

“I would talk to a close aunt or my parents and I’d watch some TV before bed,” she said. “But there wasn’t much I did to relax because I wanted to be in that mode where I was so focused.”

Moceanu, the daughter of two former gymnasts from Romania, spent a lot of time being keyed up for competitions after starting gymnastics at age 3.

She acknowledged that she did not take part in some common childhood indulgences, but she will take to task anyone who questions a youngster’s pursuit of being an elite athlete.

“I have no regrets about working so hard because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” she said.

“How can anyone even say (that a young athlete is being robbed of his or her childhood)? What’s wrong with working hard? Those are the same people who don’t discipline their kids.

“I’m thankful that my parents pushed me to work hard. I am the person I am today because of parents who pushed me and because of gymnastics.”

A falling-out with her father a few years ago received major publicity, and Dominique is dismayed that the media wasn’t as fervent in pursuing word of their reconciliation.

“It couldn’t be better,” she said of her relationship with her parents, who live in Houston. “I’m so close to my family. Family is something that’s forever.”

Moceanu today has a little more than two years left to earn a business degree. She attended the University of Akron for a year and is now enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College with intentions of transferring to John Carroll University.

She’s also passionate about coaching. She acknowledged that it can sometimes be frustrating, but she recognizes the difference she can make in kids.

“One girl told me I helped keep her from committing suicide,” she said.

“She left me a note saying I made her feel like a million bucks because I’m someone who helped her. Those things make it worth it.” 

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