Saturday, July 29, 2006

Dennis Manoloff
Plain Dealer Reporter

They arrived at the 1996 Atlanta Games as seven girls with high expectations. They departed as the "Magnificent 7," the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to secure Olympic gold.

The Magnificent 7's most recognizable component was its youngest and smallest member, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu, who was listed at 4-5 but says she was closer to 4-4. Her charisma and "It" factor were immeasurable.

Lingering effects from a stress fracture in her right tibia left Moceanu at less than 100 percent for the Games. Nonetheless, she made significant contributions in the team event, whose finals unfolded 10 years ago Sunday in the Georgia Dome.

The lasting memory of Moceanu from that magical night, however, comes from her consecutive falls on the vault with the opportunity to clinch gold. Moceanu's mistakes put the spotlight on Kerri Strug, who fell on her first attempt and severely injured her left ankle. On the second attempt, a grimacing Strug managed to stay upright and deliver the gold.

As it turned out, Moceanu's lowest vault score would have sufficed, regardless of what Strug did. But to reflect on that fact is to tamper with arguably the Games' most enduring snapshot and the legend that grew from it.

In the years post-Atlanta, Moceanu has done just fine. She gravitated to Northeast Ohio, where she is a student at John Carroll University and resides on the East Side. She coaches at Gymnastics World in Broadview Heights and is in the midst of a comeback attempt, with eyes on the U.S. National Team.

Moceanu's coach, Ohio State product Mike Canales, also is her fiancé. They will marry later this year. Plain Dealer reporter Dennis Manoloff recently tracked down Moceanu by phone at a training facility in Woodward, Pa.:

How wild was it to be Dominique Moceanu at the Atlanta Games?
They had extra security for me, because you couldn't see me through a crowd and there was a fear I would get snatched up.

Fondest recollections of the night you and your team won gold?
Entering the Georgia Dome with a crowd of 32,000; helping Kerri get onto the podium after she had been injured; thousands of flashbulbs staring us in the face while we were on the podium; the intense emotional rush when the national anthem was played.

You realize that your misfortune on the vault helped make Strug a household name and, for that matter, a millionaire.
Of course. I'm happy she was able to enjoy that moment. I'm happy people remember her because of it, given that it really helped our sport. It was a great moment in gymnastics history. People always remember the girl who landed on one leg.

But the fact remains, she owes you.
Even though we still would have won with my score, the story happening the way it did was fantastic. Kerri doing the vault the way she did was an exclamation point. It added drama, anticipation and all sorts of emotions.

I read where Kerri is your closest friend from the Magnificent 7.
That's true. We were never that close through the Olympics because of our age difference, but we've gotten really close the last several years.

No wonder you are her best friend.
(Laughter) She is my good friend, so we help each other out. I always wish Kerri well.

You never let on that the leg was hurting during the Games, but it must have bothered you. (She finished ninth in the all-around).
You don't show signs of weakness in competition. You are trained to be tough like a warrior. I didn't want to show that, at the Olympics, the biggest competition of my life, the injury was a factor. I wasn't able to do landings on my vaults and barely got any work in before the Olympic Games, but I wasn't going to use the injury as an excuse.

How much fan mail did you receive in the summer of '96?
More than 1,000 pieces per week. It came in U.S. Postal Service boxes. We had to crawl through the boxes in the living room to get to the couch.

What were some of the more notable gifts you received?
Lots of stuffed animals, earrings, necklaces, photos of me and my sister, drawings of me off the TV, plastic engagement rings . . .

Whoa . . . engagement rings?
Engagement rings. You know, the ones you get out of the quarter machines.

Do I have to ask to what those pertained?
Well, they were from people asking me to marry them.

Estimated number of plastic engagement rings and other proposals you received?
It was in the hundreds at least.

That's incredible. You were 14 years old, for crying out loud.
I know, I know. It was unbelievable. I couldn't even drive, yet people were asking me to marry them. I couldn't fathom it. If I hadn't actually seen the stuff in front of me, I wouldn't have believed it.

Did some dude honestly think you were going to open up a piece of mail, look at a plastic engagement sign and 10 lines of cheesy prose and say, "Yep, that's my future husband?"
(Chuckle) Some thought it was worth a try, I guess.

Any other oddities?
Letters from inmates. . . . I got them quite often, actually. I still get them to this day.

Do you open them?
Not really. I used to, just to see what they wanted, but I don't anymore. I don't want to put myself in a predicament, you know?

What do they want?
They ask for an autographed picture, or they write, "Don't judge me because I am in here, I am trying to change my life around, I turned my life over to God, and I'd just like an autographed picture."

Did you ever get a marriage proposal from an inmate?
I probably did, but it so happened that I didn't open the letter.

Beyond the wackos, the fan support must have been gratifying.
Absolutely. You realize something motivated them to write. A lot of people said I was a motivation for them, or that I got them interested in the sport. That's humbling.

What advice would you give to young gymnasts?
A very wise friend of mine passed this on to me: Remember, gymnastics is what you do, not who you are. Gymnastics can be very rewarding but also very challenging. It's a tough road, but if you can see the big picture and use the sport to refine life skills such as time management, discipline, constructively dealing with disappointment and humbly accepting success, you'll be fine.

When you reflect on the '96 Games, what amazes you most?
Some of the routines we were able to do. And, how I survived the system to get to that point in the first place. We were put through rigorous training and made a lot of sacrifices at a very young age, so I look back at that time with a lot of pride for what we accomplished.

The demands of the Bela Karolyi camp in preparation for Atlanta are well-documented. Do you think we'll ever see that again?
Not quite, no. It was more accepted back then, and the girls were younger. Their bodies could handle more.

Do you ever miss the rush of being one of the biggest names at a Games?
The Olympics were a great chapter in my life, but I am level-headed. I knew it wouldn't be like that forever, and I was prepared to move on once it died down. I made the most of it at the time, and I am very happy now. 

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