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Off-Balance: A Memoir by the Elite Gymnastics Olympian Dominique Moceanu
Interview about Long-Lost Sister
How the World Met Dominique
When I saw Dominique Moceanu, a gymnast of Romanian descent, compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, I was fascinated by her. I loved her dazzling smile, her dedication and I loved seeing her rewarded for her years of hard work. She quickly became my idol and I followed every back handspring and every back flip she made from then on. She was my inspiration and I wanted to be just as successful as her. She seemed determined and strong despite being tiny and she didn’t show any fear when tumbling across the floor, swinging between the parallel bars, running towards the vault or keeping her balance on the beam. From the outside, it looked like she had a perfect life and a perfect career. Only years later, I would find out that her perfect world was only an illusion.
In June 2012, just before the start of the Olympics, Dominique published a book that would throw readers off. Off-Balance is written in a heartbreaking way and really opens the eyes for those that believe the elite gymnastics world is faultless and offers a healthy environment for young underage gymnasts striving to deliver high performances. Gymnastics is a sport in which extremely young athletes push their bodies to a dangerous limit where they risk their health, their psyche and their life for athletic success. The book is a story of forgiveness, a story that reveals how a young girl overcame the challenges of life that were put in her way by the people she was closest to and how she overcame those challenges. The reader will suffer together with her as she describes the major dominating characters in her life who stole her joy of gymnastics from her.
The Book Cover of Off-Balance
Dominique and her parents in her trial
Dominique Moceanu was the youngest member of the 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team, the same year in which the Magnificent Seven brought home the gold medal for the very first time in history. Behind the scenes, she was dealing with a relentless father and the verbally abusive coach Bela Karolyi, who put her down for being too fat when she was barely weighing 70 pounds at an age of 14 and who was ignoring her and her gym mates’ injuries despite the pain they were experiencing during practice and competitions. Hard training sessions throughout a phase in which other kids play with Barbies and ride their bicycles on the street, a father who took up the role of a traditional Romanian family patriarch and Karolyi’s inexorable pressure was the price she paid for an Olympic gold medal, media attention and financial success.
After her most successful years, when Dominique was 17, she made a discovery that made her hit rock bottom. Her father had spent almost all the money she had earned from her gymnastics career which amounted to nearly 1 million dollars. She became emancipated from her parents and gained financial control over her personal earnings. This was not the most shaking phase she would go through though, as later on she would be confronted with an even bigger secret her parents had been keeping from her for her whole life.
Moceanu training with Karolyi
Living in Constant Fear
In her book, Dominique describes very vividly how she continuously feared to fail her trainers’ and parents’ expectations until in Atlanta she actually felt like she had failed. Although the team had achieved their goal to take home gold to which she had contributed with three flawless floor, beam and parallel bars routine, her falls on the vault resulted in her fearing her authorities’ disappointment and a feeling of shame when she stood on the podium with the gold medal in her hand. Dominique says Martha and Bela continuously tried to humiliate and intimidate her in the gym with regards to her weight in order to get her to perform well by weighing her in front of the rest or calling her names like “Easter egg”, “piggy” or “balloon”.
The book reveals one very interesting aspect that the mass media is not aware of and that should change our perspective of how the product “Dominique” was launched and rocketed to success. Contrary to how the media publicized it, Dominique was only directly trained by the Karolyis for short periods of time. While in public, they were her official coaches that brought her to fame, behind the scenes, other trainers actually technically prepared her for the Olympics, while the Karolyis just took the ready package and sold it to the public.
In the trial that led to her emancipation from her parents at the age of 17, Dominique stated Karolyi had witnessed her father physically abusing her and used this as a threat to get her to work harder in training, lose weight and ignore her pain caused by the injuries. He constantly managed to make her feel guilty about her pain. Dominique eventually testified she suffered from physical abuse inflicted on her by her father.
The Three Moceanu Sisters
The Discovery of a Long-Lost Sister
The book actually starts off with one of the last shocking events in Dominique's life. Dominique states how she she found out about her long-lost sister on a rainy day. This was at the end of 2007, when she was 9 months pregnant and about to take her college final semester exams. She received a registered letter with legal documents, photos and a letter from a person named Jen Bricker who claimed to be her sister who was given to adoption at birth due to the fact that she did not have any legs. The contents were meticulously organized and presented like a puzzle put together. Dominique found pictures of her secret sister, who looked very much like her younger sister Christina and even more like her father, the legal adoption papers with her parents’ handwriting and her sister’s letter in which she revealed she had known the truth for four years and had only managed to come out with it now, hoping to get Dominique to believe her. Even before receiving her parents’ confirmation of the truth she could feel there was no doubt about her middle sister’s allegations. Dominique had been feeling that there was a piece of the puzzle missing and with her first baby kicking inside her stomach waiting to get to know her Olympic gold medalist mom, she found out. Obviously, Dominique and her sisters wanted to find out the reason why her parents had given up their middle daughter. The doctors had alleged that the Moceanu family, who was poor at the time and struggling to keep the family financially afloat, would not be able to pay her medical bills due to her birth defect. Her father, who made all the essential family decisions immediately gave his daughter up for adoption without even consulting with his wife first who never even got to hold the baby. Later it was revealed that there actually were no expensive bills to be taken care of due to Jen's medical condition. She was able to lead a practically normal life in a loving adoptive family who gave her anything she could ever have dreamed of much to the contrary of Dominique, who suffered during most of her childhood. Jennifer even became a successful gymnast and went to the Junior Olympics, instinctively following in Dominique’s footsteps. Today, she is a professional aerial gymnast, lives in Studio City, California and has built up a close relationship with her sisters Dominique and Christina Moceanu.
In her book and interviews, Dominique voices many aspects related to the sports of gymnastics that young athletes don’t dare to express for fear of damaging their career forever. She also criticizes the equipment that was used in the Karolyi’s gym as being too old and dangerous for training. She thinks that a nutritional expert should guide elite gymnasts along their way to the top in order for them to eat healthily and understand nutrition and to avoid eating disorders. She believes this could have helped her to feel better about her body and be more self-confident in her gymnastics career. Dominique wants to change the world of gymnastics and show that there are other methods besides the cruel ones used by Marta and Bela that can lead young gymnasts to success. She has become a motivational speaker and offers her own services including gymnastics clinics, fitness workshops, choreography training and private lessons.