"I'm so proud of this team. They've done such an incredible job," says Dominique Moceanu about 2012's gold medal-winning U.S. gymnastics team.
It takes one to know one, with Moceanu herself a member of a gold-medal winning gymnastics team. At the tender age of 14, she competed on the 1996 team which claimed the United States' first team women's gymnastics gold medal, the last U.S. team to do so until this year's 'Fab Five' topped the podium.
"The Olympics is unlike any other competition you've ever been to," Moceanu reminisces. "Even as a 14-year-old, I knew the magnitude and spectacle of the Olympic Games."
Moceanu, a member of the 'Magnificent Seven,' performed in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, in front of home audience. "There was a double-edged sword: We were competing in the United States, so there was that added pressure but there was also that added support."
However, competing at the Olympic level wasn't an entirely positive experience for Moceanu, as she recounts in her recent memoir Off Balance. The book, seven years in the making, follows Moceanu's tough journey to the Olympic podium and how her post-Olympic life fell apart—running away from home and experimenting with alcohol and drugs in her teenage years after the games.
Moceanu entered the 1996 Olympics already competing at the top of her sport, with both the Junior and Senior U.S. National titles under her belt. The youngest member of the national team, the dark-haired daughter of Romanian immigrants—at 4 feet, 4 inches tall, petite even for a gymnast—was known for both her daring maneuvers and charismatic demeanor.
But Moceanu remembers the months leading up to the Atlanta games as some of her toughest. She trained alongside Kerri Strug, also a member of the Magnificent Seven, at the club run by gymnastic icons Marta and Bela Karolyi. The couple has been an institution on the global gymnastic circuit for decades, training Nadia Comaneci, the first Olympian to score a perfect 10; Mary Lou Retton, the first U.S. individual all-around gold medalist; and numerous national teams for the United States and Romania.
However, according to Moceanu, the Karolyis were cruel and demeaning in their coaching-style. She says they overworked her as a gymnast, depriving her of the emotional and even the nutritional support (Moceanu shot up 8 inches and gained nearly 30 pounds once she left their program) required for an elite athlete. She recalls them verbally belittling her and ignoring her, even mocking her, when she suggested she was in serious pain. The situation was exacerbated by Moceanu's domineering father, who often took the Karolyis' side as they bullied her during training.
Moceanu's life after the Olympics was anything but easy. Her father buried much of her earnings in an ill-fated gym, and their tumultuous relationship led her to file legal emancipation when she was 17. Injury took Moceanu out of the sport during the 2000 Olympic trials. But with the encouragement of her husband, a former gymnast himself, she launched a comeback in 2005, attending the 2006 national training camp (run by the Karolyis, no less). For what she calls political reasons, the USA Gymnastics organization barred her from qualifying for the 2006 national championships. She says she knew she faced an uphill battle and still deems her comeback a success. "I wanted to show myself and the world and people, my fans, that I can do this as a healthy 24-, 25-year-old woman in a healthy way."
The Karolyis are still involved with the U.S. Olympic program, with Marta serving as 2012's National Team Coordinator. However, according to Moceanu, the pair played a more limited role in 2012 than in years past.
"The fact that the National Team Coordinator was not on the floor during the Olympics was huge. In Beijing, we saw her on the floor and she was not helpful to the team." Moceanu credits the personal coaches for encouraging the 2012 team to gold. "In those pressure situations, you need someone who understands, to put you in the right mindset," she says, "to give you a hug when you come off the beam, just to say the right things."
"The teams in 2004 and 2008, they were world champion teams going into the Olympic games also. They were dubbed to win the team title too," explains Moceanu. "But they were peaking, a lot of them, at the Olympic team trials, and when the National Team Coordinator had gotten a hold of them, they seemed a little more banged up and tired by the time the Olympics came around, and during that team final day, they weren't able to be fully at their best... I'm so glad their personal coaches were more vocal this time around, saying, 'We need a day off for our kids.'"
She says the 2012 team should look forward to their "rock star period," the national attention they will receive in the months after the Olympics. "It changes your life. You get to meet all the screaming fans who supported you, all the kids you inspired, all the people who just shower you with the love and affection. It was such a great time because you felt so appreciated."
But in all the revelry and fanfare that will follow the team back to the United States, the team, all but one not yet legal adults, will have some tough choices to make. "It's the best time of your life, but there are also a lot of decisions [where] the parents are going to have to step in."
Despite all the hardship, Moceanu still looks at her Olympic experience warmly, particularly the national tour that followed the Atlanta Games when her and her teammates "had a sisterhood going on." Her advice to the Fab Five as they embark on their own post-Olympic journey: "You've got to live in the moment and you've got to enjoy it, because it comes and goes very quickly."
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