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DRIVING DOMINIQUE WHEN YOU'RE 14 AND GIFTED, LIFE CAN WAIT, BUT YOUR SPORT WON'T

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The prodigy's smile, once so dazzlingly natural, has been
showing signs of strain as her date with destiny nears. This is
what happens when, a year before the Olympics, you upstage your
elders to become, at 13, the youngest gymnast ever to win the
U.S. national championship. This is what happens when your
coach, the flamboyant Bela Karolyi, haunted by the Olympic
failures of his recent past, links you with nearly every great
female gymnast of the past 20 years--Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou
Retton, Kim Zmeskal and Svetlana Boginskaya--all of whom he at
one time or another has coached.

This is what happens when you hire an agent and write an
autobiography, Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion, at 14.
When you're photographed for the cover of Vanity Fair by Annie
Liebovitz. When stories about you appear in TIME and PEOPLE, and
you're featured in an Olympic ad by Kodak. All of this attention
showered onto your 4'6 1/2", 72-pound frame after you have won
just one individual medal in world championship
competition--five fewer than teammate Shannon Miller--a silver
on the balance beam last October in Sabae, Japan.

And finally, harrowingly, this is what happens when a month
before the Atlanta Games, a stage you've been pointed toward
since birth, you announce--on Today, no less--that you must miss
the Olympic trials because of a four-inch stress fracture in
your right tibia. The strained smiles became pained smiles that
day.

After all the hype and hullabaloo, Moceanu had to petition for a
spot on the Olympic team based on her third-place finish in the
all-around at the 1996 nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., on June
5-7. Moceanu wasn't alone. Miller, who won the all-around at
Knoxville, also petitioned for an Olympic spot, after tendinitis
in her left wrist made it difficult for her to perform. Both
gymnasts were given places on the U.S. team, and both are
expected to be healthy enough to perform well in Atlanta. But
for Moceanu the stress fracture represents the first significant
injury--the first adversity of any kind--she has had to overcome
in an otherwise ascendant career, and it has served to bring her
balloon down to earth.

"It's disappointing," Moceanu said during the week of the
trials, her smile brave but thin as a thread. "Injuries happen
to everybody. In the long run this will just make me tougher."

Moceanu has been on a fast, narrow track ever since--well, go
back as far as you like. She practically vaulted out of her
prenatal tuck to enter the world, as if life itself were a meet
that had started without her. "That's it? That's the pain?"
thought her mother, Camelia, when seven-pound, six-ounce
Dominique was delivered in a Hollywood hospital. Camelia was 19,
and Dominique was her firstborn.

When the proud papa, Dimitry, saw Dominique, he told his wife,
"She looks very strong. Looks good for a gymnast."

Camelia smiled. "She's your daughter," she said.

A daughter who would fulfill her father's ambitions. Both
Dimitry and Camelia were gymnasts while growing up in Bucharest,
Romania, but Dimitry had pursued the sport with greater passion.
From the time he was six, he was training four hours a day. When
he was 16, however, his parents were given a choice: school full
time, or gymnastics full time. Dimitry's parents wanted him to
be a doctor, so he was forced to give up the sport he loved.
"From that point, I made a commitment that my firstborn, boy or
girl, would be a gymnast," Dimitry says. "It was an unfinished
dream."

If you think for one moment that America is not still the place
to finish unfinished dreams, the Moceanus will set you straight.
Dimitry never became a doctor. He completed high school, did his
mandatory military service, then went to college for three years
before deciding that his future lay outside Romania. He applied
for a passport. This was 1979, when the Iron Curtain was still
very much intact, and passports out of Romania were difficult to
come by. When government officials told Dimitry to come pick his
up, his father told him it must be a trap, that he would surely
be arrested. Dimitry ignored the warning. Everything turned out
to be in order, and he bought a ticket to Austria, telling
officials he was going on holiday.

Needless to say, he missed his flight home. From Austria,
Dimitry applied for political asylum in the U.S., which was
granted after a Chicago church agreed to sponsor him. He arrived
in the Windy City without savings, relatives or any knowledge of
English. The church found him a bed, and within two days Dimitry
found work at a Greek restaurant called Aphrodite's, where he
worked for four months before moving on to manage another eatery.

His brother Costa followed him to the States, settling in
California. Camelia, who was then Dimitry's girlfriend, got
herself a passport and in late 1980 made her way as far as
Greece. Dimitry joined her there, and they got married. Then in
February 1981 the Moceanus flew to New York, bought
cross-country bus tickets and resettled in Burbank, Calif.,
where Costa had lined up a job for Dimitry running a school
cafeteria. Camelia learned English while she was pregnant with
Dominique, by watching television with a Romanian-English
dictionary. On Sept. 30, 1981, her future champion was born. "A
good kid," Camelia says today. "So easy."

It was the American dream. After saving enough money, the
Moceanus moved back to Chicago and bought Aphrodite's. Dimitry's
parents, along with his brother Iani, came to the States in 1982
to help care for Dominique. Dimitry bought a house north of the
city, in the attractive suburb of Highland Park. You think
gymnasts train hard? Try running a restaurant. Dimitry, Camelia
and Iani worked seven days a week until 4 a.m. "If you want to
advance, you have to put in the effort," Camelia says
matter-of-factly.

Within the broader context of this American dream lay the more
personal Moceanu dream. When Dominique was 3 1/2, Dimitry called
Karolyi, asking if he should bring his daughter to Houston so
she could learn from the best. Too young, Bela told him. They
enrolled her in a local club until the Chicago winters persuaded
them that they should move south, and in 1988 Dimitry sold the
restaurant and moved the family to Temple Terrace, Fla., just
outside Tampa. He enrolled Dominique in a club called LaFleur's
Gymnastics. Camelia got a job in a beauty salon, and Dimitry
opened a used-car lot. But there was never any question in his
mind where the family was headed. Three years later 10-year-old
Dominique was watching gymnastics on TV and said wistfully, "Oh,
if only I could train with Bela," although she had no idea her
father had ever talked to Karolyi. That was all Dimitry needed
to hear.

He called Karolyi, who told him the date of the next tryout, and
on Thanksgiving weekend, 1991, the Moceanus drove to Houston.
Karolyi and his wife, Marta, put prospective pupils through a
series of exercises testing strength, speed and coordination.

"The most important is the obstacle course," Karolyi says, his
eyes lighting up as he describes the scene. "All the girls start
together, and they must climb a rope, run across the beam,
tumble, things like this. It tests agility, speed, willpower.
The one I want is the one who is pulling back the other ones,
clawing with her fingers, biting to get in front. She's a
fighter."

Dominique passed, though whether she left tooth marks in any
competitors is unclear. By Christmas the Moceanus, who by then
also had a two-year-old daughter, Christina, had moved to
Houston, although Dimitry would spend the next year and a half
commuting from Tampa until he sold his car lot there. "They
would do anything for me," Dominique says.

It was a family commitment. But Dimitry, who estimates he will
have spent more than $200,000 on Dominique's training and travel
expenses by the end of this year, was working too hard to spend
much time watching his daughter's progress. And Camelia just
wasn't cut out to be a hovering stage mother. Dominique's drive
came from within. In Dominique's first year with Karolyi she
became, at 10, the youngest member ever of the U.S. junior
national gymnastics team. She wowed fans with her smile and,
upon someone's suggestion, added "1996 Olympics, for sure" to
her autograph. Headline writers, unable to resist her heritage
and the Karolyi connection, began to ask, THE NEXT NADIA?
Karolyi, inveterate promoter that he is, was quick to compare
her personality to that of his other gold medalist, Mary Lou
Retton.

Moceanu was living up to the hype. She won the U.S. junior
national all-around title in 1994, then the senior title on her
first try, in '95. Last October, at her first world
championships, she was the top U.S. finisher in the all-around,
placing fifth; her silver on the beam made her the only U.S.
individual medalist. "I could have done better just by being
confident and more aggressive," she said later.

But it was exactly what Karolyi had hoped for--a strong showing
with room for improvement. No one knows better than he how
fragile the perch atop the gymnastics world can be, and how
little success in a pre-Olympic year means when the Games roll
around. Besides Moceanu, Karolyi has coached three other
gymnasts who won the national championship in the year before an
Olympics: Dianne Durham in 1983, Kristie Phillips in '87 and Kim
Zmeskal in '91. Durham and Phillips failed to make the Olympic
team, and Zmeskal, who was the reigning world all-around
champion, took home no individual medals from Barcelona. She
fell from the balance beam in the opening seconds and never
recovered, a failure that still haunts Karolyi. "That experience
with Kim in '92 was so conclusive," he says. "The doors to the
gym were open to the press and people are asking, 'How many
medals will you get?' It was a hardship on Kim. I'll regret it
the rest of my life."

Karolyi, as is his wont, exaggerates on this count. He never
just threw open the doors of his gym so the media could freely
pepper Zmeskal with questions. Media days were carefully
orchestrated, just as they have been for Moceanu since her
victory at the nationals heralded her as the U.S. gymnast to
watch in '96. Having greased the publicity rails for Moceanu,
Karolyi then attempted to put on the brakes. Never mind that
part of being an Olympic champion--even a child champion--is
being able to live up to expectations. "Dominique's easier going
than Kim was," Karolyi says, "a younger type of personality that
is better for handling the pressure than someone so self-driving
and self-demanding like Kim."

Is she? We shall see. It's a difficult thing, this business of
being a prodigy. Moceanu has not had a vacation since 1988
unless you count a three-day trip in 1993 to visit her
grandparents in California. An A student with a sociable nature,
she has been educated at home this year, taking her ninth-grade
curriculum through videotapes and books. Home schooling has been
boring, but it allows her to train three hours each morning,
then four to five hours in the afternoon. She has most Sundays
off. "This year Dominique has put gymnastics first and school
second," says Camelia. "She has the rest of her life to study."

"It's a sacrifice," says Dominique. "But it's only going to be
this year. There's not too much time left."

For the last year she has been crossing off the days before the
opening ceremonies on a homemade calendar that goes from 365 to
1. She is young enough to participate in the 2000 Olympics, but
this is her time. Silly as it sounds, 14 is the prime of a
female gymnast. Dominique knows that, and she sees that her shot
at glory has come with a price. It's illuminating to hear her
talk about six-year-old Christina, who's also enrolled at
Karolyi's. "She's doing it for the fun," Dominique says--no
smile now, strained or otherwise. "I don't know if we can have
another gymnast in the family."

Since Christina was born, the Moceanus haven't had a family
vacation. If all goes well, Dominique may get them a trip to
Disneyland this summer. They'll certainly have earned it.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVE BLACK KAROLYI HAS BEEN A SIZABLE FORCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF MOCEANU, WHO HAS BEEN HIS PUPIL SINCE SHE WAS 10 [Bela Karolyi and Dominique Moceanu]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID STRICK DIMITRY AND CAMELIA, WHO WERE GYMNASTS IN THEIR ROMANIAN HOMELAND, SENSED THEIR DAUGHTER'S POTENTIAL LITERALLY FROM DAY ONE [Dimitry Moceanu, Dominique Moceanu and Camelia Moceanu]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID STRICK MOCEANU IS DETERMINED NOT TO LET HER STRESS FRACTURE KEEP HER OFF THE OLYMPIC MEDAL STAND [Dominique Moceanu on balance beam in front of American flag]