Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Dominique Moceanu, the youngest American, at age 14, to ever win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. Moceanu was part of the Magnificent Seven—along with Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug, Jaycie Phelps, Amanda Borden, and Amy Chow—who won the Women's Team All-Around under the tutelage of Coach Béla Karolyi at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Following stellar performances on the uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercises, Moceanu missed the landing on both her vault attempts, leaving her as fearful of her father and coaches' reaction as she was joyful in reaching her lifelong goal.
In 1991, Moceanu's family had relocated to Houston, Texas so that she could train with Karolyi and his wife Marta. She has written critically about that time and the Karolyis' control over gymnastics (Marta Karolyi has served as the U.S. National Team Coordinator since 2001) in her best-selling memoir Off Balance. She is also the author of the Go-for-Gold series for pre-teens. She is married to surgeon and former gymnast Mike Canales, and together they have two children. Despite her recent publications, choreography work, attendance at various gymnastics camps, and private lessons, Dominique Moceanu refers to herself as "a stay-at-home mom."
Moceanu initially retired after dropping out of the 2000 Olympic Trials due to injury, but began a comeback in 2005, which ended on August 1, 2006.
In my very first interview, at nine years old, I said I wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist. That was the first time I said it out loud in front of somebody other than my parents. And it was kind of a seed that was planted in me, because the local news team, they actually considered me an Olympic hopeful, which I thought was the coolest thing.
A lot of these gymnasts at the elite level, they put themselves through so much sacrifice because of that dream. That Olympic dream is what a lot of these girls want. And it's so tough now to make the team. It always has been. It's difficult to make that Olympic team.
Everyone's in it for different reasons, but for me, I certainly wanted that Olympic dream. That was my main goal. I wanted a gold medal and I was going to stop at nothing and not let anyone, no matter how much they shook me, how much they broke me down, I didn't want to let them win. I didn't want to let those people harm me so much that I would not fulfill my destiny.
I'd been competing at that elite level since I was 10 years old, and it was never the competition that frightened me. I loved gymnastics. I was eager to compete. I was hungry to go out there and be the best in the world, and I had that determination. There was never anything wrong with me competing at the elite level at such a young age. I loved being the youngest and breaking records, and for me that was a positive thing.
The hard part is the self-serving adults who wanted to use me as a means to an end. And that's where the authority figure in your life, especially since you're a minor, needs to be watching over you and protecting you. So it was never the fact that I competed at a young age that bothered me, or anything like that. I thrived off of that. I loved it. And I think in most cases it's not a bad thing to compete early in your career at a high level.
I didn't have a lot of choices. When you're in the sport at such a young age, you have a lot of people guiding everything that you do, from what you eat, what time you need to sleep, what your day's going to be. That's just how it is. The coaches, they make the rules. A lot of my influence, too, was from my Eastern European culture, and I had Eastern European coaches as well. So I wasn't allowed to have a voice, and I didn't particularly have one for a long time.
I had very nurturing coaches up until the age of 10, when I transferred and moved to the Karolyi system. I really liked the gym, and I loved going to the classes. I begged my parents to even stay extra hours, so that I could play and just have fun. So, of course, I did it because I loved it.
But then, when I got to the Karolyis, I realized that these coaches were treating me very differently than I had ever been used to. I was never brought into this kind of situation before, where the coaches were weighing gymnasts in front of other people. They would humiliate them about their weight. They were belittling, and verbally and emotionally abusive to the athletes. Their self-esteem was chipped away at.
And I saw gymnasts training on injuries that were not addressed, to the point where a lot of them would be so hurt that they would never speak up. In my case, I collapsed before the Olympics, in the gym, due to my stress fracture.
I always was a hard worker. That was never the problem. I had extremely high discipline. That was never the problem. I was a straight-A student. That wasn't the issue. It was always the treatment of the athletes.
A lot of people don't understand fully: When you're in the gym, you spend more time with your coaches than you do with your parents, on a daily basis, and over the course of 10 years, that adds up to a great deal of time that these people are influencing your children. They have to be cautious and know what's happening in the gym. A lot of times children are scared to speak up against their coaches. They're afraid of also being ostracized by their teammates and their peers. They speak out, and other people will say, "Well, that's not true," and they want to defend the coach.
I'm not the only one who's spoken out about this, but there are athletes who have been afraid to say things for many, many years. And you'll still find some athletes who never will say anything about that side of it, because when you've been so emotionally and mentally and verbally abused, a lot of times you start to form an alliance with your abuser. Most athletes, they don't grow out of that "I have to still please these people." They start believing that it was for their own good.
I had torn emotions. My coaches, I felt they weren't proud of me because I had made an error, and they were making it very clear by how they were treating me that they were not pleased with me. And here was supposed to be the happiest moment of my life. I had finally accomplished this gold medal.
Of course now I look at it differently because I won't let them steal my joy anymore and I will not let them make me feel that I failed in any way. I've chosen to view it differently. And that comes with growth and maturity.
But at that moment, when I'm taking people through the feeling, how it really was, yes, I was scared, because I'd lived so much of my childhood in fear of these very people who were supposed to be nurturing and caring and proud of me at this moment. Years later my dad said he was proud of me. I never got an "I'm proud of you," or "Congratulations," from my coaches, ever.
Now I've had distance and time to digest all of that had happened to me, and I choose to look at it in a much different light and not allow that negativity and that poison to enter my life anymore.
My parents didn't know anything about collegiate scholarships, so they had accepted the national team training stipend, the monthly stipend that I received after making the national team, so I was ineligible for NCAA eligibility anyway. That was it. And it was all or nothing at that point, because I was going to go to school, but I was not going to be able to have a collegiate scholarship if the Olympics didn't work out.
I always encourage young athletes to have a backup plan, because there's a small window of opportunity and it's important to have a backup plan because once the Olympics are over, it's almost like, "What's next?" And you're not really prepared for what's next.
I got injured at the Olympic Trials in 2000. I could not jump. I could not walk on my leg properly. I couldn't bend my knee. I couldn't straighten it. I knew right away. I'm like, "Nope, this is not good." I could feel it in my knee, that I could not use it like I needed to use it. It was unstable. And when you feel that, it's devastating.
I had to have surgery on my knee and my shoulder. I was dealing with a torn labrum for the entire year, and I was getting cortisone shots in it just to make it to the Olympics again. So I was putting my body through a great deal, and pretty much I just left. After having surgery on my knee and doing the post-Olympic tour, and then in January 2001 I had shoulder surgery, I just left.
It was really unfortunate that I was leaving the sport in that way. The truth is I didn't get the respect that I felt that I should have, but at that point, when I was injured, I just kind of decided, I can't go on right now because I need two more surgeries. I needed to fix my knee and my shoulder and then figure out what I was going to do with my life.
A lot of gymnasts feel like it's just too much to stick around another four years and to put yourself through all this training and to put yourself through all these camps. A lot of this stuff is very difficult on the body, the mind, and also, all four years, you're putting four years off of school and very few make it the Olympics.
So sticking around another four years is very difficult to comprehend. That was the last push for the Olympics and now you just want to recover your mind and body and take a break. Everybody wants a break, because it's so intense.
There are two sides to it: Yes, you're heartbroken, because you've done this sport your whole life and it's so hard to let it go, you've invested so much into it—emotionally, physically, all your preparation. Everything you've ever done has revolved around this one sport, especially for an elite level gymnast.
And yes, there is a side of you that is a huge sigh of relief, because now you can eat what you want, you can go and enjoy personal activities with your friends. A part of it is relief, a part of it is heartbreaking, and a part of it is, "What am I going to do with my life?" For so long you've dreamed and invested in one goal and you're not thinking of anything else. You're not thinking of the future, until you're finally at that point where you have to make those decisions.
I just wanted to find some peace within myself. Departing from the sport, having a lot of the pain and the aches that I had when I left the sport, and then departing the sport on an injury, that was hard, too. But I think I had to deal with many different emotions at the time trying to figure out, "OK, what do I really want? How do I overcome all these feelings that I have inside of me for all that's happened in my career? How do I understand it all?" And I couldn't understand it all at that point, because I hadn't processed everything yet.
When it's so fresh, you just want to get through the next thing: just get through this next surgery. "OK, what's the next step? OK, get through the next surgery." There were two surgeries. And then after they healed I wanted to figure out, "OK, what do I do with my life?"
At that point I was like, "Well, I've always wanted to go to college." That was something that was important. I had met Mike during that time, and he encouraged me to go to school. He was already at medical school, and on his way to become a surgeon. And I kind of just decided after a couple years that's what I needed to do.
I thought I was going to leave the sport forever when I came out of it in 2000. After the Olympic Trials and the surgeries, I did feel like, "OK, well, I really didn't want to end my career on an injury. I never wanted to leave the sport this way." That was difficult for me to leave the sport that I had invested so much of my life in. And I was taught to never be a quitter. I was taught to never leave something without finishing it.
So I felt that I did finish it in the best way that I could, but unfortunately unforeseen mishap happened, and I had to then figure out, "How do I depart this in the best way possible?" And thankfully Mike entered my life, and I was able to come back in my 20s and finish the sport in a better way.
I had found a peace within me. There was inner peace with my decision to come back. And it was all motivated and encouraged by my heartbreak, because I left the sport not loving it like I used to. And that broke my heart as well, because I felt like I didn't leave the sport necessarily on my own terms.
I felt that I was too good to let go of the sport in that way, where I just had to depart on an injury. It was an unsettling within me.
Coming back at age 24, I was really doing gymnastics because I found my passion and love for it again. And my husband showed me that I could be at the elite level with all these younger kids, and I could be competitive. I could do it in a positive way that wasn't hurtful and harmful.
And I wanted to prove, not only to myself, but to other people as well, that it could be done in a healthy way. Politics blocked me from competing at the U.S. Nationals when I came back in 2006, but it doesn't mean that I left the sport in a way that wasn't proud of, because I went out and I stood up for what I believed in. It was certainly a moment in my life where I had such maturity, and understanding of the sport.
All the politics, it irritates me, but I was at such peace that I did this. And I did it the right way, and you can't hurt me anymore. I proved to everyone at the national team training camp that I was highly competitive with great routines, and I know those girls there saw it. I was really proud to be able to survive that camp and pretty much overcome and conquer a lot of those demons that I had from that Karolyi Ranch.
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Rob Trucks spent eighteen months talking to 49-year-olds. Two of those interviews, with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, appeared in Deadspin. You may read others at his website tusktusktusk.com. Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.