Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A member of the 1996 Magnificent Seven, she is making a comeback to competitive gymnastics

The Kansas City Star

Gymnast Alicia Sacramone was signing autographs after her training session Friday for the U.S. Classic. One saucer-eyed little girl got her signature, then just kept staring and repeating “thank you.”

Sacramone, 18, couldn’t help but crack up after her third, “You’re welcome.” The 2005 world champion in floor exercise, Sacramone was asked if she would have been so starstruck by anyone when she was a child. She grinned and pointed over her shoulder at someone also surrounded by small admirers.

“That woman right there,” Sacramone said of Dominique Moceanu. “I remember watching her and the U.S. Olympic team (in 1996) and thinking, ‘Oh, that looks like so much fun! That’s what I want to do.’ And now, I’m competing alongside her.”

Yes, Moceanu, the tiniest member of the “Magnificent Seven,” is still a gymnast, now at age 24. On video, though, she’ll always be the dark-eyed, 14-year-old sprite who helped the Americans win the team gold at the Atlanta Games.

Next month, those seven gymnasts — Moceanu, Shannon Miller, Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps — will have a reunion at the Visa Championships in St. Paul, Minn.

“I can understand the magnitude, that perhaps I didn’t at 14, of what our success really did for the sport of gymnastics,” Moceanu said. “It afforded me so many opportunities to travel around the world and meet some amazing people.

“It was the biggest competition of your life, and there was a lot of pressure to win gold because it was in our country. So that part was very serious; it had to be. The fun came afterward, when we got to tour around the United States. We went to photo shoots, to Oprah Winfrey, to Kathy and Regis, got thousands of fan letters. We became like sisters, because we did everything together.”

And when they gather again in August …

“It will be very strange for me,” Moceanu said, laughing, “because I’ll be competing, and the rest of them will be in the VIP section. So that is going to be a little bizarre. But a very amazing experience. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d still be doing this.”

Moceanu took part in just two events in the U.S. Classic on Saturday, placing 14th in the vault (14.250) and tying for 15th in the floor exercise (12.850). But just competing at all is a big deal, considering she originally retired from gymnastics in 2001. The road back started in 2004, when she was a media correspondent at the Athens Games and then began working with longtime friend Michael Canales, himself a former gymnast, to get in shape for a post-Olympic tour.

“Little by little, she started saying, ‘I think I can be competitive within the United States,’ ” said Canales, who is now Moceanu’s coach and fiance. “I said, ‘If you can do that, you can be competitive with the rest of the world.’ We started making goals in November 2004, just taking it a small step at a time. By June (2005), we both were confident she could be competitive.

“Unfortunately, we had a bump in the road with a chronic problem with her Achilles’ tendon that had to be fixed. I was involved with the surgery.”

Yes, Canales, 29, is also a physician, the chief resident at St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland.

The couple is very busy outside of gymnastics. Moceanu is attending John Carroll University in Cleveland, studying for a business degree. She and Canales will marry on Nov. 4, and Strug will be one of the bridesmaids. The wedding will be in Houston, where Moceanu’s parents live.

Moceanu went through some very difficult times with her father, Dumitru, in 1998-99 as they had a dispute over the use of her earnings to build a gymnastics training center. But she said that has all been resolved.

“I’m very much over everything that happened, and my relationship with my parents is wonderful,” she said. “My dad and I had a disagreement over finances. … Now, we’re a stronger unit because of that. My father respects me very much, and we came full circle.”

So what’s driving Moceanu to still compete now, having already accomplished so much and with such a full life?

“I want to be a part of the movement that shows women’s gymnastics is for women as well, not just girls,” she said. “I’m 24, I’m still very young. There’s no reason why gymnasts can’t have more longevity if we keep our bodies healthy.” 

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