Saturday, April 29, 2006

The tiny girl wearing a lime-green outfit and bright-eyed expression approached Dominique Moceanu with nervous caution.

"Hi, sweetie,'' Moceanu said, helping ease her young admirer's shyness during a visit Saturday to Gulf Breeze Gymnastics and Cheer.

An inquiring mind wanted to know how Moceanu (pronounced Mo-chee-ah-no), a 1996 Olympic gold-medal gymnast, broke her fears while tumbling during routines.

"I was always kinda fearless in everything I did,'' said Moceanu, who then provided the girl with a variety of instructional tips and advice, along with an autograph.

"It's really quite an honor for me to still be able to do this, 10 years later,'' said Moceanu, 24, who is training for a competitive comeback. "If my autograph can make someone smile or make their day, I'll do it until the day I die.''

Being fearless, of course, is what vaulted Moceanu into the spotlight as the youngest member of the famed "Magnificent Seven,'' the stars of the first U.S. gymnastics team to win Olympic gold during the '96 Games in Atlanta.

Being fearless aided Moceanu through personal adversity as well as physical and emotional pain during the years following the Olympics.

It kept her strong. She remains fearless in this quest to defy gymnastic logic.

The new Moceanu

A different Moceanu, 13 inches taller, 55 pounds heavier from the 4-foot-3, 70-pound pixie that captivated the world a decade ago, is making one final run on the mats. While engaged to be married in November to her new coach, former Ohio State gymnast Michael Canales, Moceanu is pushing for the 2008 Olympics.

"People thought I was nuts,'' she said. "They said, 'You're not training... after five years off.' And I said, 'You know what? Watch me.'

"I don't have to prove anything to anybody. I want to help Team USA. I want to make a difference in this sport. No one has to put an age limit on you. I think it's great to be a woman doing gymnastics.''

Looking toned and fit, flashing the same megawatt smile that once made her so popular, Moceanu spent the past weekend in the Pensacola Bay Area. Her appearance at Gulf Breeze Gymnastics and Cheers was a promotional event to help celebrate the facility's first year in business.

Many of the tiny, aspiring gymnasts were not born when Moceanu appeared on the cover of a Wheaties box after the '96 Games. Others were too young to remember her. But her popularity was evident as she spent a half day signing autographs.

"She loves children,'' said Susan Yonehiro, owner of the facility, who arranged Moceanu's visit. "In these little girls' minds, their goal is to be the best in whatever they do."

Ups and downs

Moceanu's life, now chronicled in a DVD movie she produced, has a lot of triumphs and pitfalls. She sacrificed normal teenage experiences to grind through Olympic training. At 17, she briefly became estranged with her father in a dispute of post-Olympic finances. She has since reconciled and is close to her parents again.

So much has confronted her.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah,'' she said. "I could write another book, which I plan on doing. I was close (to an emotional breakdown) a few times.

"I'm only human. Everyone gets to their breaking point at some time in their careers or lives, especially if there's too much on you, and so young. I had a lot of things to overcome, and it wasn't always easy.

"I think what has kept me going is my motivation to succeed in life, my strong family, my bond with my mother, who has been my guardian angel my whole life. I credit so much of my success to her.''

Her motivation to pursue one more chance at Olympic glory was forged while attending the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece. While working with Sports Illustrated, which helped arrange her trip, Moceanu sat in the stands, watching the U.S. women's gymnastics team capture a silver medal.

It spurred a dream to chase gold again.

The comeback

"I thought, 'Why am I not out there? I can still do this.' I felt I still had a lot of good gymnastics left in me that people didn't get to see,'' said Moceanu, who is pursuing a degree in business management at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she currently resides with her fiance.

Her sentiment was reinforced later that year while performing in exhibitions with Olympic team members such as twin brothers Paul and Morgan Hamm. The crowd's roar, the adrenaline rush, the thrill of performing all rushed back with warm memories.

"I was forced out of the sport into retirement through injuries,'' said Moceanu, who had knee surgery and back injuries in 2000 and 2001. "I wasn't ready to leave.''

After meeting Canales and falling in love, the two planned a training regimen to get Moceanu ready for the U.S. women's national meet this summer. She has recovered fully from surgery to repair her right Achilles' tendon. That injury occurred on Christmas Eve, 2004, while training.

Ironically, Canales is in residency to become an orthopedic surgeon.

"I'm probably in the best shape I've been in since 2000,'' said Moceanu, who will have her first major performance next week. "Six months after this new procedure was used -- less invasive surgery -- I was able to start doing everything again.''

Making the '08 Olympic team could be Moceanu's greatest feat. But she faces long odds and stiff competition from the waves of talented teenagers.

It's not without precedent, however. Annia Hatch, 26, won two silver medals for the U.S. at the 2004 Summer Games. Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan was 29 when competing in that Olympiad. She won a world vault title in 2003.

"I have more desire now than ever,'' she said. "I can go into the gym, without anyone pushing me, and go through my routine. I never could do that before. I feel great, I'm a grown woman and gymnastics is fun again.

"Hopefully, I can inspire this next generation of girls. I really want to make a positive impact.' 

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