Retired for five years, 1996 Olympic team gold medalist Dominique Moceanu planned to take the first step of her competitive comeback at the U.S. Classic (July 22-25). Tendinosis in her Achilles has forced the 23-year-old Moceanu to bypass this meet, a decision she says she made to improve her long-term chances for 2006 and beyond.
Born in California to Romanian parents on September 30, 1981, Moceanu began training under Romanian-born coach Bela Karolyi in 1991. She won the U.S. junior all-around title in 1994, and in 1995 became the youngest senior national champion in U.S. history.
At the 1995 World Championships, held in Sabae, Japan, Moceanu was the top American all-around finisher in fifth place. She also tied for the silver medal on balance beam, won a team bronze medal, and tied for seventh place on floor exercise.
Moceanu won a team gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Games, where she finished ninth all-around, fourth on floor exercise and sixth on balance beam.
Following Karolyi's retirement in 1996, Moceanu moved several times and trained with multiple coaches, including Artur Akopyan, Mihai Brestyan, and Luminita Miscenco. She placed 14th all-around at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland; and first all-around at the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York.
Shortly after winning the Goodwill Games, Moceanu endured a painful public chapter in her life when she legally separated from her parents. A judge granted the 17-year-old Moceanu's request to be an emancipated minor, allowing her to live independently and control her own finances. (Moceanu and her family later reconciled, and today she enjoys a close relationship with her mother, father, and younger sister.)
Moceanu relocated to Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy (under coach Mary Lee Tracy) in early 2000, but her attempt to make the U.S. Olympic team that year ended with a knee injury.
Moceanu has remained busy as a student, motivational speaker and gymnastics coach. She also stays in touch with her fans through frequent updates to her website, dominique-moceanu.com. She recently announced her engagement to surgical resident Mike Canales, a former gymnast who now coaches her. Moceanu is currently training at Woodward Gymnastics in central Pennsylvania. In this IG Online exclusive interview, Moceanu details her motivation and plans for coming back.
IG: As you yourself have experienced, gymnasts often train and compete despite being injured. Is it simply something all elite athletes must deal with, or should coaches reevaluate this practice? Have your thoughts on this changed now that you are older?
DM: Without a doubt my thoughts have changed on this topic through my experiences from the Karolyis all the way through to Mike! I have trained at all levels of intensity, emotionally and physically. I have a lot of respect for the value of repetition training. I gained that methodology from the Karolyis. They helped shape my consistency, because I did so many routines. Like Nadia has said, "I didn't smile on the beam or bars, because it was my job, and it wasn't anything out of the ordinary for me." I shared that sentiment with Nadia, and I had no doubt that I would be prepared for competition. That method of training was beneficial at that stage of my physical and mental development.
When you move forward to my present-day training, the intensity hasn't decreased, but the emotional intensity is a bigger part of the equation. Mike's a strong motivator, and he can get me to perform "that spectacular routine" rather than six average routines, all the while I've saved my body mileage. If I attempted to train like I had between 1992 and 1996, this comeback would have come to a screeching halt seven months ago. I'm working smarter, not harder, and I'm certain that Oksana Chusovitina and her [longtime] coach Svetlana Kuznetsova know the meaning of this better than anyone!
Mike has a solid understanding of how the body works, and he communicates problems clearly to me, so today I understand what is truly hurting. That communication has really helped my training, because we value rest just as much as we value hard work in the gym. At this stage in my career, this is the only way I can train, and I am fortunate to have a coach who encourages this method.
I suppose my bottom line is that training needs to be carefully tailored to athletes based upon several factors. Coaches need to listen to their athletes and consult the appropriate medical attention when injuries do not improve. A lot of gymnasts will be saved from premature/forced retirement, additional injuries, and loss of confidence under this pract. I'veice seen several coach/athlete relationships blossom from this practice, and while I don't have all of the answers, I hope to demonstrate that a coach who communicates openly with the athlete regarding injury can yield very positive results when suitable medical attention is sought out.
The tide will have to shift. Can you imagine a female having to do ten Yurchenko double backs in practice or in podium training? I don't want to imagine that. Gymnastics is changing, and I am experiencing the changes first-hand. Consequently, training techniques need to change, too!
IG: Who was the first person you told that you were definitely coming back to competition, and what was the reaction?
DM:Mike was the first person I told. The two of us bounced the idea around following the Rock 'N' Roll gymnastics tour, and we certainly took a team approach to the decision. The final decision was made in November (2004), and back then we originally planned to prepare for the 2006 season.
How did Mike react? He smiled and raised his eyebrows, and I'll never forget what he said. He told me, "The true test of your comeback will come during daily training when your motivation can get low, but I'm really confident in you, and this comeback will speak volumes about your character. Let's have some fun!" I actually have those words written out and posted at my desk.
Next we put our heads together and started setting bi-weekly goals, and chose to keep the comeback under wraps until we believed that I could realistically compete at the Elite level again. When we were convinced that I was physically ready, we informed (U.S. national team coordinator) Marta (Karolyi) of the decision. Next, (U.S. women's senior program director) Kathy Kelly, and then we let our parents know. After that we "let the cat out of the bag" on my website!
IG: How much contact have you had with, or advice from, your former coaches?
DM: I've spoken to them. Marta has been optimistic about my return, and she's provided me with a lot of general insight. She's reminded me to know my competition well and to train hard.
Mary Lee has just been really excited for me, and happy to see where I am in my life. She's seen me move through so many phases of development. She's most excited about the engagement, though!
IG: How many people have you consulted about updating your routines for the new Code of Points?
DM: As far as the new Code goes, Mike handles most of that stuff, and he's making a blueprint of four or five big skills he thinks I can learn. We haven't consulted anyone about the new Code, because we want to gather all of the information first, get the basics down, and then start to see how individuals interpret it, nationally and internationally. We are in no rush to figure it out. If we're fortunate enough to get an invitation to a national team camp, we will start to see what other coaches and judges are saying. I really believe the frequent national team camps will help facilitate knowledge about the new rules.
IG: Have you had any advice from judges?
DM: Yes. The judges that I've seen here at Woodward and at various appearances have been anxious to help me. In 2005, it seems as if requirements for credit have become even stricter, and the judges have really allowed me to appreciate that.
IG: You have had surgeries on your knee and shoulder. Are you fully recovered from these injuries?
DM: No problems with either of those injuries. I guess they needed about five years away from competition to heal, and now they feel as good as new, but I had officially hung up my bar grips in 2000.
IG: Are you limited in any way by the injuries?
DM: Not a bit, but I've encountered a few stumbling blocks since November. In December I had a severe left ankle sprain that Mike treated and is now 100%, but now I have a nagging (injury) in my right Achilles, and Mike and his residency team have a detailed plan of treatment, which is great! It's not severe, and it's my only complaint, because there is something wrong with a gymnast with nothing creaking!
IG: The U.S. team has or has recently had some strong vaulters and tumblers. What do you think you will have to do to show that you can compete as well as or better than they?
DM: I have to do the vaults and floor routines that Mike and I have set out for me to do. Execution is a priority. What do I have to do to compete with the current girls? The formula is simple: do as high a Start Value as possible with less than 2.5 tenths off! It's easier said than done, but if I stick to that game plan, I'm confident that I can be competitive with the U.S. national team members. I think that my vaults have more post-flight than they did in the past, and I think that I have a better understanding of how to stick landings.
IG: How much of your old routines can you still perform? What new tricks are you planning or are already doing?
DM:I can do all of my tumbling passes from my Atlanta floor routine, and I can still do a Yurchenko one-and-a-half twist vault, so I guess I can do all of my skills from 1996. I can still do my front handspring layout-half vault, so I'm focused on more difficult elements, but not at the price of poor form.
On floor I'm really focused on my execution, but as far as skills go, Mike is working with me on a double-twisting double back tucked. We are figuring out what looks better "on me"—double full-in versus full-in, full-out. We are working both of them.
On vault, I've landed stretched Rudis on standard matting in the gym, and that is my most solid vault now. I'm working several vaults from various approaches, though, and whatever comes out of Mike's brain, I'm willing to try.
IG: How are you managing to separate your relationship with Mike the coach, and Mike your fiance?
DM: I guess we don't really separate our relationship at all, and I hope that doesn't sound bad. The whole comeback has enriched our relationship and it has been so fun. It really has. We met through gymnastics in 1994 and we are staying involved with gymnastics 11 years later. We both have so much going on, and gymnastics is a great meeting point for us to enjoy each other. It's exciting! We both enjoy watching gymnastics tapes from the '80s to the early '90s, and continue to do so as much as we can. It is part of our learning approach. This "era" of gymnastics was so beautiful, and there is much we can learn from it.
Mike was really busy before the comeback, and continues to wear "a lot of hats," and he never really takes them off. But he has the unique ability to concentrate on each responsibility all day long without sacrificing any of them. I don't know if it makes sense, but I don't think he knows how it works, either.
His mind is racing at all times, whether he's concentrating on patients in the hospital or my jump combos on floor. For example, we will be eating dinner and he will just blurt out, "A double front-half on floor will be great, but only if you do it with your knees together!" and then he will just go on eating and asking me how my test went. It's really funny to see. The bizarre thing is that he had this behavior before he began coaching me, so there really hasn't been much of an adjustment. He knows me so well both inside the gym and outside of the gym, so we communicate well, and that spills over from life to coaching and vice versa.
IG: What do you think your greatest challenge for this comeback will be: proving yourself to the national team coaches; the actual physical preparation; psychologically getting back into training and competing; or perhaps something else?
DM: The two biggest challenges will be to remain patient and to continue to make smart choices. Patience has been one of our themes from the start, and it has benefited me already, but it's so tough, because your heart and head are not always working together. When I remain patient and make the right choices, proving myself to the Athlete Selection Committee, physical preparation, training, and competing will fall into place. I believe in that.
IG: Anything else you'd like to add?
DM: I want to thank all of the individuals that have supported me throughout my career and especially now, because they are "coming back to competition" alongside me! From my loyal fans, my family, my fiance's family, Woodward Gymnastics, to Lilia Popkopayeva, Rustam Sharipov, my webmaster Lisa Patterson, Sallie Weaver, and Thermal Aid. I thank everyone for their support, and I hope to make all of you proud!