For Gymnast Moceanu, Life Threw Her Off Balance

Dominique Moceanu is the youngest gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal; she was 14 during the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Host Michel Martin talks with Moceanu about her new memoir, "Off Balance." The book details the thrill of competition but also a dark side of elite gymnastics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. The U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team finished on top of the standings after qualifying rounds yesterday at the London Olympics. Now, American gymnasts -including Gabrielle Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Alexandra Raisman - are trying to win the first team gold for the U.S. women since the so-called Magnificent Seven back in 1996.

They were the first and only U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team to take gold at the Olympics, and our next guest was one of the stars of that team. But now, these many years later, Dominique Moceanu has written a new memoir where she tells us that the price of that success - in her case, at least - was very high, maybe too high.

Her memoir is called "Off Balance" and Dominique Moceanu is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DOMINIQUE MOCEANU: Oh, thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here and talking to you.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about your Olympic experience. Do you remember what was going through your mind then?

MOCEANU: Oh, absolutely. I was in the moment, and I loved it, and I wasn't thinking anything but go and have fun and enjoy this moment. And I was uplifted by the roar of the crowd and the intensity in the arena, and I just felt on. I felt on my game, on that routine. It was a minute and, you know, 30 seconds and complete Georgia dome crowd fully into it. So that made me feel very good, and it puts a smile on my face.

MARTIN: Could you tell us how you got bitten by the gymnastics bug? It started early, right?

MOCEANU: It started very early. My parents enrolled me in a gymnastics class when I was three years old, and I just was drawn to gymnastics. I loved it. It was my playground, and I could run around and be free there. And that's eventually where I ended up building a lot of confidence, because I was the awkward, European, you know, looking kid that had a family from Romania, which most kids didn't even know where that was on the map.

MARTIN: You know, it was interesting, what - you actually write about this in the book, how in hindsight, it was actually kind of interesting that they were willing to spend so much on your training because they were struggling, as you said, immigrants from Romania, really, kind of, at times, living kind of hand-to-mouth.

When you look back on it now, when you think about their willingness to kind of put so much into your training, what do you think about that?

MOCEANU: Well, I certainly believe that my parents had the mentality of, you know, growing up in poverty in Romania and just - they didn't have everything that, you know, America could provide. So when my father came to this country, he wanted a better life. He was just so proud. He was a proud Eastern European man. He wanted that success for me so badly, and, of course, I wanted to succeed.

And I think sometimes, he may have been overbearing and he may have gotten involved too much, but I think that was his way of demonstrating that he cared. But in reality, it sometimes did - you know, did harm me.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people will want to know about and that you talk about, in my view, in a very, I think, very nuanced and fair way in the book is that you talk about kind of the balance between your desire and what your parents and coaches wanted for you. And the reason I'm asking you this is that one of the things you've always been known for in your career is that you were kind of a prodigy. I mean, the fact is that you - from the minute you set foot in a gym, coaches spotted you and your talent.

So I wanted to ask you, do you think it was you pushing you, or do you think it was other people pushing you?

MOCEANU: Well, in the beginning, it was all me. I loved it. I would beg my parents to let me stay in the evenings, and I'm very thankful that they somehow provided and sacrificed whatever they could for me to do gymnastics. It's a - you know, an expensive sport. So the fact that they provided everything that they could for me - and they came from a good place. They had good hearts and well-intentioned, but I think sometimes, things get blurred.

And I think once that there was poor treatment given to me and verbal and emotional abuse, and my coaches would use my father as a medium of abuse to hit me when they wouldn't feel that I was performing up to speed in the gym. They would use that fear tactic to keep me in constant fear in the gym. That's when it became scary to me. That's when it became not so much fun anymore.

MARTIN: Let me back up for people who may not remember this, that you had 23 coaches during your career. But at the age of 10, you ended up at the famous - I think many people might say infamous - Karolyi Gym in Houston. And you are very explicit about the negative side of training with them. And I think this is going to be hard for some people to hear, but I think you should tell some of - just some of the things that you experienced with them.

MOCEANU: Absolutely. At the 1995 world championships, my coach, Bela Karolyi, wasn't - you know, he felt that I wasn't performing up to his standard. This was the day of the competition in the morning practice. I had done 16 bar routines when, on average, the normal morning training session just requires one routine or two. Well, I was doing 16 bar routines. The rest of my teammates had been sitting around waiting for me to finish, but for some reason it just wasn't good enough for him and he had blamed it on my weight. Then he placed me on the scale in front of all of Team USA and the coaching staff. And ultimately, I never gained weight, I'd lost weight. And those are just some stories. You know, I go in other detail with more things, as well.

MARTIN: Well, things like - I'll just give an example, you know, ignoring injuries. There was a time in which you were in fact injured and, you know, fractured your ankle. He would call your father or threaten to call your father to actually get him to hit you if he didn't feel you were performing, you know, to the standard. And then you talk isolating you from your family except for these threats.

MOCEANU: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I just wanted to ask what kind of reaction are you getting to these revelations?

MOCEANU: Oh, I'm getting a positive overwhelming response and people emailing me, former gymnasts saying thank you, you know, I found some healing in your book because, you know, I know how it was, and people just really coming out to support. And it's been so heartwarming, I can't tell you because it took me a long time to get the courage and strength because it's such a borderline issue that people don't talk about that goes on in women's elite gymnastics and it needs to be brought to the surface so we talk about it so coaches don't abuse their power. Because that's what abuse is, it's the improper use of power. And the Karolyis are bullies in every sense of the word. So the fact that our governing body gives them complete power and authority, it really frightens me. Somebody needs to say something and it was time for me to say it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Dominique Moceanu. She still holds the title of the youngest American gymnast to win an Olympic gold. She won it the age of 14. She was part of the so-called Magnificent Seven, the U.S. Women's Olympics gymnastics team. But her new memoir is titled "Off Balance," and it reveals some disturbing things about the experiences that she had leading up to the Olympics.

You describe the period after the Olympics as a major time of growth for you. But it was also a time of, you know, real turmoil in your family. And fast forwarding a bit, eventually you petitioned for and won emancipation from your parents. It had to have been a very difficult frightening thing for you to do, especially given that as a young woman you were used to having people kind of pretty much tell you when to eat, sleep and where to stand, you know, all day long.

MOCEANU: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Where did you get the strength to do that?

MOCEANU: For me, my emancipation was a fork-in-the-road moment because it was trying to get away from the control of my father, trying to get away from the pressures of my coaches and all these expectations that were always on me, and trying to gain control of my financial future and my life because my father was not going to give me any control of my finances. And when I'd ask him about going to college, he said well, don't worry about it, you know, we will, we will give you money, I'll give you money. And I said no, Dad, that's not how it works. I worked to really, really hard for all of this and I want to be able to pay for my own things. But he's like well, you're young now. It's OK. Don't worry about it. It was always that my voice was not being heard. The courts filed - they allowed me that legal emancipation and I was able to get control of my financial future at that point.

MARTIN: And the, but the shocks did not end. I mean you did wind up going to college.

MOCEANU: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You married. You were pregnant with your first child. And then a letter appears out of nowhere. And you find out that what?

MOCEANU: I have a secret sibling that I never knew existed and who was given up for adoption at birth by my parents and she was born without legs. So finding that at the time that I found it out, I mean I was nine months pregnant, I was in the midst of my five final exams, and I was becoming a mother. I was losing a father, gaining a sister and gaining a daughter, all the while trying to complete my undergraduate degree. It was a lot for my psyche to take in at that point. Just when I had reached this balance point in my life and expecting my first born, it was, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

MARTIN: There was so many amazing things though, that you learned when you connected with this sister. I mean despite the fact that she was born with no legs, she's actually an incredible athlete in her own right.

MOCEANU: Absolutely. I'm so proud to call her my sister. She lives a no-excuses life. She has not let having no legs slow her down. She shares the same sports that my youngest sister and I have done, volleyball and gymnastics, she did them when she was a child and she definitely felt the magnitude and a connection with me when she watched me during the Olympics, so she started gymnastics because she watched me on television.

MARTIN: Forgive me for saying this, and I hope it's not painful for me to say this though, in some ways just from describing her childhood and yours it sounds in a way that she had the better deal, because...

MOCEANU: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: ...she had some really loving parents who pushed but her in a good way and in a constructive way. And I wonder if the two of you ever reflect on that.

MOCEANU: Oh, absolutely. That was one of the first things that I asked her after we had our conversation, I said did you have a good childhood? That was very important to me. She was just treated with every bit of love and respect and given the utmost courage to accomplish her dreams. So I'm very thankful and I have no resentment and no regrets because all of my challenges made me who the person I am today, so we came into each other's lives at the right time.

MARTIN: Why did you want to write this book now?

MOCEANU: Well, I felt that I wanted to share the true story of my life. I think some media outlets had given bits and pieces of my life but never my true story in its entirety from my own perspective. And I felt that I had so much to say in my heart and I'm telling the truth. The time has come where I felt my story was necessary to share and it took me seven years to get it all out. But it took me every bit of that seven years to process it and I have no regrets.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I do want to mention that today you live in Cleveland with your husband, a former fellow gymnast also that you met when you were 12, and you've got to young children and you're coaching yourself. And I'd like to ask what would your advice be to people who may have gone through something that you went through and what do you think is the thing that allowed you to kind of recover from this and go on to have the life that you have now?

MOCEANU: Well, I certainly believe that having my husband be in my life has been a tremendous blessing. He has been my supporter for, you know, for all of this since day one and he knew he opened my eyes to make me realize that no, that wasn't right what happened to you and you don't have to feel badly about that time. You should be very proud because there's so many great things you accomplished in the sport and don't let these people ruin it for you because they harmed you. And you have a voice and your voice matters and you can help others with it.

MARTIN: Dominique Moceanu was part of that Magnificent Seven gymnastics team that won Olympic gold medal in Atlanta 1996 Games. She's the author of a new memoir. It's titled "Off Balance." And she was kind enough to join us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Dominique Moceanu, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MOCEANU: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: As you might imagine, we reached out to Bela and Marta Karolyi and USA Gymnastics to ask them to respond to Dominique Moceanu's statements. Martel is currently the national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, and the couple still run their camp in Texas. They are both in London now. The Karolyis declined an interview, but the organization provided several positive accounts of the Karolyis from former gymnasts and sent this statement on the couple's behalf. Quote, "We've known Dominique since she was a young gymnast and we worked with her to help her achieve her dreams. We are disappointed that Dominique's memories are negative and we wish her success in her life and joy with her family," unquote.

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