Monday, August 14, 2006

They thrilled a nation with moves in Atlanta. Now some U.S. gymnasts work behind the scenes.

Spirit of '96 lives on

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Had things gone according to plan, Dominique Moceanu would be wearing her warmup suit and competition leotard when she joined six teammates from the 1996 U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team — the Magnificent Seven — next Saturday in St. Paul, Minn.

However, with last week's decision denying Moceanu the chance to compete at the USA Gymnastics national championships that begin Wednesday, that scenario isn't happening.

Moceanu, 24, still plans to be in St. Paul on Saturday with the darlings of Atlanta as they celebrate the 10th anniversary of their dramatic gold medal victory and their first appearance together since at least 1997.

Reunion reflections
It shapes up as a happy moment for seven women — Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps and Kerri Strug — who have thrived mostly out of the public spotlight for 10 years.

"The general passage of time is a little scary. I think we all feel that," Miller, 29, said last week. "It's hard to believe it was 10 years ago. In some ways it seems like yesterday, but in others, it seems like it was a completely different time."

Three are in college: Miller in her third year of law school at Boston College, Chow at Stanford University's medical school and Moceanu at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

Borden and Phelps are coaching. Strug works for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and Dawes is a motivational speaker and is completing a year as president of the Women's Sports Foundation.

They came along at a time when USA Gymnastics was beginning to put aside the dog-eat-dog attitude that Strug said was an uneasy element of the 1992 team, but the athletes had yet to adopt the more team-oriented program that produced a world championship in 2003 and an Olympic silver medal in 2004.

"In Barcelona, they purposefully used us against each other, thinking that would push the team to new heights," Strug said. "They realized that didn't work, so they tried to bring us together as a team before the (1996) Olympics. Now it's a very different system. They really do try to make it more cohesive."

Bells for Moceanu
Moceanu faced the most turbulent post-Olympic moments when she and her parents battled in court in the late 1990s over financial issues. But the family is on good terms today, and she plans to be married in Houston in November to her fiancé and coach, Mike Canales, a former gymnast.

After failing to make the 2000 Olympic team, Moceanu left the sport before launching a comeback attempt that was interrupted last year by an ankle injury that required surgery. After recovering, she attended a team training camp and competed at the U.S. Classic meet in Kansas City but was unable to persuade USA Gymnastics officials to grant her a spot at nationals this week.

"The thing that has been so great recently is that I haven't had to sacrifice anything to remain in gymnastics," she said last week. "A lot of great things have been happening.

"Never did I think that 10 years after the Olympics I would want to compete. But at 24, I have a different perspective on gymnastics. There's so much to life, and gymnastics is just a beautiful part of it."

While disappointed by what she considers lack of support by federation officials for her comeback and an unfair decision that will prevent her from competing this week, Moceanu said she believes she has been a role model for the current generation of gymnasts.

"(Alicia Sacramone), one of the current world champions, said how glad she was that I was back competing," she said. "I was able to share stories with them, and I looked forward to being with them and helping through competitions when they were having a hard time. I wanted to send the message that this is women's gymnastics and that it's not just for little girls."

Even though she won't compete this week, she said Saturday's recognition of the Magnificent Seven "will still be a celebration, a wonderful occasion. I won't let them (federation officials) determine how I feel."

Miller has had turbulent times as well. After qualifying for the 2000 Olympic trials but failing to make the team, Miller lived briefly in Houston with her husband, eye surgeon Christopher B. Phillips, before the couple moved to Boston.

Miller filed for divorce in 2004, and the two battled in court over financial issues for more than two years before a settlement. Their divorce will be final in September.

Camera ready
While Miller deals with the end of that relationship, she continues with an unlikely career that arose, in part, out of the disappointment of failing to make the 2000 team. She worked for NBC at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and now does a gymnastics show for the Comcast cable group.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride for me, personally and professionally, but it's been really good," she said. "I've really kind of grown up and gained confidence in myself outside the sport. I was always this shy little girl, and I never thought I would be involved with television, but now it's something I enjoy."

While Miller wraps up her final year of law school, she also will wrap up her performing career as a gymnast. She will perform on floor and balance beam for a program Oct. 29 in Portland, Ore., that will be filmed for television.

Two other members of the Mag 7 — Borden, who owns a gym in Chalder, Ariz., with her husband, Brad Cochran, and Phelps, who is coaching in Colorado Springs, Colo., after marrying 2004 Olympic silver medalist Brett McClure — remain active in the sport.

Strug, meanwhile, has taken another path. She has run in two Boston Marathons and works out five days a week but said she hasn't done a flip in eight years.

After considering herself as one of the shyest members of the 1996 team, she speaks for a living as part of the public affairs and marketing arm of the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Serving Uncle Sam
Strug said she still gets recognized as the gymnast who had to be carried to the medals podium after suffering an ankle injury on the vault in the final moments of the Olympic team competition.

These days, she's learning about funding and bureaucracy.

"I have a passion for working with young people, and this job is a great chance for me to find out about how things transpire and the importance of funding and presentations for federal grants," she said.

As a political appointee, her job will expire with the end of the Bush administration, but she hopes to work with child development issues after 2008. 

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