2 Decades Later, Gymnast Dominique Moceanu Looks Back On Her Career Dominique Moceanu was the youngest U.S. gymnast in history to win Olympic gold in 1996. Twenty years later, she talks to David Greene about the pressure of competing at such a young age.
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2 Decades Later, Gymnast Dominique Moceanu Looks Back On Her Career

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2 Decades Later, Gymnast Dominique Moceanu Looks Back On Her Career

2 Decades Later, Gymnast Dominique Moceanu Looks Back On Her Career

2 Decades Later, Gymnast Dominique Moceanu Looks Back On Her Career

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Dominique Moceanu was the youngest U.S. gymnast in history to win Olympic gold in 1996. Twenty years later, she talks to David Greene about the pressure of competing at such a young age.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Big moment in Rio today at the Olympics. It is the women's individual all-around gymnastics competition. And 19-year-old Simone Biles is the heavy favorite to win gold. Earlier this week, the U.S. took gold in the team event. And it was only the third time that's happened. The first was in 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Everyone you see here will get a gold medal, Dominique Moceanu, everybody's on their feet.

GREENE: Dominique Moceanu was famously part of that team at just 14 years old. She was proud of that medal in '96. But as she put it on, she worried her father wouldn't be impressed at all because she had missed her landing on the vault twice. She says her dad was physically and emotionally abusive, and her coaches, Marta and Bela Karolyi, encouraged that.

DOMINIQUE MOCEANU: You're training every single day with the threat that you're going to get physical punishment from your father if they think you're overweight, if they think you're not training hard enough and they think you've gained weight and they think that you're not trying hard enough but maybe you're having a bad day. And I could never have a bad day.

GREENE: Did your father ever abuse you because of something you did wrong in Bela Karolyi's eyes?

MOCEANU: Yes. There were several times. I chronicle one of the most traumatizing times that my dad did it in front of the Karolyis, and it really humiliated me when he slapped me across the face and all because I had stashed away some food at the Karolyi ranch during the summer of the Olympic Games. I stashed away some Mentos and Twizzlers that my aunt had given me. And I was abruptly woken up from a nap, and my father's pulling me by my ear and dragging me to Karolyi's house. And I was, you know, slapped in front of them, and that was - that was mortifying.

GREENE: Now, the Karolyis did not immediately respond to our request for comment, but they've told NPR in the past that they're disappointed that Dominique's memories are negative and they wish her success. Dominique's father passed away in 2008, and Moceanu says things have changed, especially the relationship between the current women's gymnastics team and the Karolyis.

MOCEANU: Obviously, I was, you know, one of their last gymnasts they coached on a day-to-day basis. And Bela's been completely out of the gym for 20 years. Marta has been there as a national team coordinator, which is very, very different than having them as your personal coaches. So the psychological and mental abuses that went on on a daily basis are not necessarily as prominent on the monthly basis where these young ladies go to the national team training camp.

GREENE: Do you think that the smashing success of this team in 2016 sends a message back to 1996 to the Karolyis of that time you just don't need to do that? There are other ways to motivate.

MOCEANU: Absolutely. You know, I talked to a gymnastics coach just this past week. And they said, you know, back then, we had the Karolyis who set the precedent of yelling and demeaning the athletes and embarrassing them. And those methods were what were getting results. And he said I used those methods, too, and there's a generation of kids that hate me because of it. And there are still some coaches in the elite scene that do this. But it's definitely better than it used to be in some respects.

GREENE: You were the 14-year-old phenom in 1996. Today, we are hearing so much about Simone Biles. What makes her special in your mind?

MOCEANU: Well, Simone Biles is a one-of-a-kind gymnast. She's across the board talented on every single event. She has skills that have really never been done in a female's floor routine. The way she does the difficulty later in her passes is really hard to do. And I think that just speaks volumes of her competitiveness, her drive.

GREENE: Well, she and her teammates are already gold medalists. What can they look forward to? I mean, I wonder if it was harder to transition to a post-Olympics life.

MOCEANU: Yes. The hardest part after the Olympics is getting back to normalcy because gymnastics will always be a part of you, but it's what you do. It's not who you are. And I think that transitional period is very tough because your body goes through changes. You're going to have to find out, you know, where your happy image is with your body weight because it changes.

GREENE: I - just listening to you describe some of that and thinking back to what you told me earlier, I bet there are moments when you grab some Twizzlers and you say, I'm going to have these damn Twizzlers. No one is going to stop me from eating these Twizzlers.

MOCEANU: Absolutely. There was a time where, you know, I remember going to the White House because all of the U.S. Olympians are invited to the White House after the Olympics. And I remember eating a Snickers bar on the airplane on the way over there, and I just thought, you know what? I am free to eat what I want now. Nobody can tell me what to do, and I can eat what I want. So I know these girls cannot wait to eat pizza when the competition is done.

GREENE: (Laughter) Dominique, you're making me want to call Domino's or somewhere and order some pizza to be waiting for Simone as soon as her last even is over.

MOCEANU: Yes. You know what? I'm pretty sure she's on top of that because it's a tradition after every competition that they order pizzas.

GREENE: OK.

MOCEANU: So I'm excited for them to eat finally.

GREENE: They're taken care of.

MOCEANU: Yes.

GREENE: (Laughter) All right. Well, that is - that is a relief to know. Dominique, a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

MOCEANU: Thank you so much.

GREENE: That was Dominique Moceanu, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics.

[POST-BROADCAST EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story was broadcast, NPR received a statement from Bela and Martha Karolyi. They say that, "neither of us witnessed Dominique being physically abused by her father. As her coaches, we trained Dominique to take maximum advantage of her talent and skills and to help her achieve success on the world and Olympic stage, which she did."]

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