Monday, July 18, 2005

By Jennifer Kushlis, USA TODAY

Gymnast Dominique Moceanu knows all about breaking ground. At 14 she became the youngest American gymnast to win gold.

Dominique Moceanu will return to competition for the first time in nearly five years at the U.S. Classic in Virginia Beach.

Saturday, at 23, she will try to prove she hasn't aged too far beyond the straight-banged, big-smiled image on the Wheaties box — though 45 pounds heavier and nearly a foot taller.

The appearance of Moceanu, 5-3 and 125 pounds, in the U.S. Classic in Virginia Beach will end her nearly five-year hiatus from elite competition. Moceanu, who retired after a knee injury forced her out of the 2000 Olympic trials, knows age is an issue and will use it to her advantage.

"I'm older, but I know I'm still capable," Moceanu says. "I think we've all seen I can do it."

Moceanu says she never outgrew the thrill of performing. She returned from the 2004 Athens Games, where she served as an athlete ambassador for Sports Illustrated, keen on a comeback. Her reputation was on the line, Moceanu says, so she told only her family and now fiancé, Michael Canales.

"Every waking moment I'm not at the hospital, I'm helping Dominique get where she wants to be," says Canales, a former Ohio State University gymnast who trains her between shifts at his surgical residency. "I stress over keeping her healthy and happy, but it's a good kind of stress."

Canales tended to Moceanu's most recent injury in a series of injuries that plagued her career — a sprained left ankle on Christmas Eve. Her gymnastics pursuits also were stalled by a 1998 dispute with her parents over finances. Now Moceanu says she has grown to appreciate her family and the sacrifices they made for her career.

"This comeback has been a long process," Moceanu says. "We've planned 2006 as my big year."

She first captured glory in 1996 at the Atlanta Games as a member of the "Magnificent Seven" — the first and only U.S. women's gymnastics team to win team gold.

"There are many who want to do the same thing," says Bela Karolyi, her former personal coach who now runs camps in Huntsville, Texas. "But very few have succeeded. I have to be honest; I don't even recall any strong comebacks. I always applaud it, though."

Moceanu enters the national qualifier in shape and with features that give her better power and lines, she says.

She and Canales do a three- to four-hour workout each night. Canales says his program is a welcome change from Karolyi's eight-hour a day schedule.

"At this stage, her body can't withstand it," Canales says. "As soon as gymnastics aren't fun for her, we'll quit."

Moceanu, who plans to compete in the vault and floor exercise this weekend, must finish in the top 14 to earn a trip to the Visa Championships next month. Also competing will be 17-year-olds Chellsie Memmel, an Olympic alternate in 2004, and Alicia Sacramone, who took gold in vault in the 2005 American Cup.

"When you're young and you eat, sleep and breathe gymnastics, a bad meet seems like the end of the world," Moceanu says. "Now I have many more things than gymnastics."

She balances training with a full business course load at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, the responsibilities of homeownership and wedding plans.

But gymnastics has always had a place in her life.

Moceanu coaches part time at Gymnastics World in Cleveland and still runs in circles with elite gymnasts — Morgan and Paul Hamm, members of the 2004 Athens silver medalist men's team who witnessed Canales' July 2 marriage proposal.

Canales says the couple daydreams about a 2008 Olympic bid, but getting Canales through his second year of residency and helping Moceanu qualify for the 2006 worlds dominate their life.

"My family sometimes forgets I still do gymnastics," Moceanu says. 

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