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Issue Date: September 2003 Issue


Perfect Landing


Lynne Thompson

Dominique Moceanu's arrival in Cleveland might well have gone unnoticed if it wasn't for that television commercial she taped late last year for Cuyahoga Community College, a 30-second spot in which she extols the virtues of her new school while strolling across the screen.

One of the most recognizable faces in the sport of women's gymnastics, Moceanu — whose name is usually mentioned in the same breath as prodigies Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton — actually blends quite easily into a crowd. Maybe it's her unassuming demeanor or the fact that she's grown 6 inches since the 1996 Summer Olympics, when the 14-year-old and six other teen-age girls accomplished the impossible by becoming the first U.S. gymnasts ever to win team gold.

But Moceanu, dressed in a light-green T-shirt, white zip-up cardigan, white corduroy flares and athletic shoes, looks like any other 21-year-old college student as she sips coffee in a Beachwood Starbucks. It's only when you look at her almond-shaped brown eyes and dimpled smile that you realize she's the same girl who graced magazine covers and Wheaties boxes seven years ago.

Occasionally, Moceanu reaches for her Louis Vuitton bag to answer her cell phone, each time expecting to hear the voice of her father, Dimitry, or mother, Camelia. Her Romanian-born parents and 13-year-old sister, Christina, she explains, are driving from their suburban Houston home for a visit, and they don't know how to get to her apartment. The fact that Moceanu is eagerly awaiting their arrival may be as surprising as her presence in Cleveland. The last time her name was splashed across the papers, the then 17-year-old was engaged in a bitter struggle for legal and financial independence from her parents. The situation became so ugly and explosive that, in December 1998, a Texas district judge granted Dominique a protective order that prohibited Dimitry from speaking to or coming within 500 feet of her for one year.

"I had to take the risk to leave, to be my own person, to be allowed to do what I wanted to do," she told a Texas Monthly reporter in late 1998. "I know it's going to work out in the end."

Now, she appears to be living that happy ending she predicted: an ever-improving relationship with her parents, the love of a Cleveland man, a home in the eastern suburbs and a degree from a nearby university that may eventually serve as a stepping stone to her new career.

Michael Canales first met Dominique Moceanu in August 1994, when he was a promising 16-year-old gymnast competing at his first U.S. National Championships and she was a 12-year-old wunderkind who had just won her first all-around title in the women's juior division. The Rochester, N.Y., native, who had moved in with a family friend in Brecksville during his junior year of high school to zrain at Gymnastics World in nearby Broadview Heights, remembers being "basically scared to death" at his first big meet.

"After a couple of events, I went into the hospitality room, hoping to get away from everything for a little bit in between my routines," recalls the outgoing Ohio State University grad;ate, now in his fourth and final year at the Ohio College f Podiatric Medicine,Zwhere he's studying to become a foot-and-ankle surgeon. "And in creeps this little girl."

She asked him how things were going. He replied that he was trying to hang in there. She perfunctorily encouraged him to do just that.

"Little did I know, that was Dominique before she was Dominique Moceanu, 1996 Olympic gold medalist. She was just a little squirt who had won the junior division for the women."

Canales, who went on to make the OSU men's gymnastics squad, says their paths continued to cross at competitions and exhibitions. But they didn't really get to know each other until the 2001 national championships in Philadelphia, when both Canales and Moceanu were retired athletes attending as spectators. (A bone chip in her right knee sidelined Moceanu during the 2000 Olympic trials.) Over the next several months, they exchanged phone calls and e-mails and visited each other in Cleveland and Houston, where Moceanu was coaching and attending a community college. Canales eventually broached the subject of Moceanu's moving to his adopted hometown by suggesting she approach Ron and Joan Ganim, owners of Gymnastics World, about a coaching position there.

The Ganims were both thrilled and a little skeptical about the prospect of having an Olympian at their facility. Moceanu, after all, had been coached by Bela Karolyi, a man known as much for his grueling training regimens as the Olympic champions he produced. By contrast, the most ambitious of the Ganims' older athletes were looking to land a college scholarship.

"We're trying to have fun with the kids; we're trying to have them enjoy the sport," Joan says.

During their first telephone conversation, Moceanu told the couple she shared their philosophy. "She was tired of the elite mentality where you just push and drive these kids and burn 'em out," Ganim says. Any remaining concerns disappeared after the couple watched Moceanu coach in their gym for a weekend during spring 2002.

"The majority of the kids loved her," Ganim says. "She can make them feel like, ‘Oh, my God, I really screwed up!' But she doesn't yell and scream, she doesn't throw temper tantrums, she doesn't belittle them to the point where they feel useless — things that, unfortunately, she went through."

In June 2002, Moceanu packed up her iar and drove to Cleveland. After a summer of coaching at Woodward Gymnastics Camp in Woodward, Pa., and International Gymnastics Camp in Stroudsburg, Pa., she enrolled at Tri-C as a second-semester freshman ("I liked it for what my needs were at the time"). She began juggling a full load of classes, a 16-hours-a-week coaching job and a schedule of personal appearances and gymnastics clinics. (The week before our interview, she'd traveled to Dallas, New York City and Columbus between exams.)

"We realized that we had a whole lot in common," Canales says of the decision to eliminate the miles between them. "There's a lot of stuff that goes unsaid when somebody has been through the same things you have been through."

When asked to list their similarities, he replies, "We're competitive and driven." He admits they can turn almost anything into a contest, even getting ready to go out. "If we have to be ready in 25 minutes, she's going to try to be done in 19 minutes; I'm going to try to be done in 15 minutes. She hates to lose; I hate to lose."

Moceanu is initially reluctant to discuss the relationship. "I don't want to really talk about personal business," she says when asked to tell the story of how she and Canales met. But that hesitation disappears as she describes what exactly attracted her to him.

"He's a hard worker and he's very ambitious," she gushes. "He helps me stay motivated, on top of my schoolwork. He's an amazing person, very intelligent. He understands my lifestyle, the way I am. I couldn't have picked a better person to be with."

She answers the question of just how serious the romance is in her next breath, without even being asked. "I wouldn't just leave my family and walk away for anything that I didn't think would be something more."

* * *

One of the few stories Moceanu relates in any detail concerns an evening out with Canales and his family earlier this year. They were leaving Gund Arena after an ice-skating exhibition when Canales told her that a man behind them had mentioned her name.

Moceanu stopped, turned around and said, "Yes, I'm Dominique." The first words out of the man's mouth were, "How's that thing with your father?" — a reference to her much- publicized bid for emancipation from her parents. She responded by calmly saying, "Everything with my father is great and I'm doing well, thank you," then turned around and kept walking.

But the fact that people still remember her for a private family matter rather than her athletic accomplishments rankles the normally upbeat Olympian to this day — so much, in fact, that she and her family sit down in a conference room at Gymnastics World to discuss the situation with Cleveland Magazine and end any public speculation about them.

"I want people to know that we're happy and together," she says emphatically.

In 1998, Moceanu, one year shy of her 18th birthday, began asking her father for an accounting of her finances. At the time, Sports Illustrated estimated she'd earned from $2 million to $2.5 million since turning pro at age 10. "I wanted to grow up a little faster — I already had grown up faster because of being in the sport, being in the limelight and traveling all the time without my parents," she now explains. "I saw other kids had their own money, had their own stuff."

According to published reports, some believed the teen-ager had good reason to be concerned about the trust fund into which her earnings were deposited. After the 1996 Summer Olympics, Dimitry quit his job as a salesman at a Ford dealership and built Moceanu Gymnastics near their home. The 70,000-square-foot facility was widely considered too big and costly to turn a profit. Even Dominique's friend and sometime manager Paul Ziert, publisher of nternational Gymnast magazine, calls it "that nbelievable monstrosty of a gym."

"He wanted it to be bigger than any gym in the world to express what he felt was the biggest love any father could have for his daughter," Ziert says. "Sometimes, when you're trying to do so much for another person, you do some things they don't want."

If they had to do it over again, Camelia believes that she and her husband would simply "sit down with Dominique, open the books and show her everything." But Dimitry, autocratic Eastern European patriarch that he is, didn't answer his daughter's questions about money. "My dad's like, ‘You don't need to know. You're still young. You don't need the headache. Let me and Mommy take care of it,' " Dominique remembers.

"As we promised her, we put it in the trust under her name, all of the money she made," Dimitry says. "Well, some her money. But it's OK. It's our family. What's mine is hers, what's hers is ours."

"We share," Dominique chimes in.

Dimitry adds that he and his wife built an addition onto their home for Dominique after the Olympics — a 900-square-foot bedroom complete with private bath, sauna and a balcony overlooking an Olympic swimming pool — as a token of appreciation for her hard work.

"It's good, because you give the child something in return," he says.

Ziert points out that such practices are not uncommon in Romania, where Dimitry, a former gymnast, and his wife grew up. He says great Romanian athletes' parents typically tapped the financial windfall "to do things for them and the family."

"That's the way the society was structured," Ziert explains. "It can look however you want it to look."

On Oct. 17, 1998, the situation came to a head when Dimitry and Dominique fought over her coach, a young Romanian woman Dimitry imported after Karolyi's retirement, one of a handful of friends and confidants, including gymnasts, who were encouraging Do)inique's increasingly independent ways.

Dominique left the house and, according to family friend Janice Ward, went with her coach to a hotel room a friend had rented for them. On Oct. 19, she filed suit to be legally declared an adult and, in turn, gain control of her earnings. She confirms that the suit her lawyer filed stated, "She has reason to believe that the trustee [her father] has mismanaged these funds and that the trust is, for all practical purposes, broke."

But she stresses that the suit was more about gaining control of her life than any amount of money.

On Oct. 27, she reached a legal settlement with her parents whereby she was recognized as an adult, and the suit was withdrawn.

"Dimitry did not want to sign the papers," Ward recalls. "But Camelia and I both said, ‘Look, she wants this. You're going to lose her if you don't sign them. She'll be 18 soon. Sign them!' We thought that was it."

They were wrong.

A few weeks later, Houston police contacted Dominique and told her Dimitry had talked about having her coach and another friend killed. According to various media sources, police had tapes of Dimitry discussing the murders with an informant, possibly a private investigator he had hired. Dominique and the friend — an older man Ward says wanted to be her manager — fled to the Cayman Islands with the help of a wealthy acquaintance.

"The police told me to leave," she emphasizes.

Dimitry, however, was never arrested and charged with a crime. "When you're nervous or upset and say, ‘I'm not going to let nobody touch my child or get my child away from my family; I'm going to kill that person,' you don't really mean it," he says. "I don't hire nobody."

Nevertheless, on Dec. 9, a judge ordered Dimitry to stay away from his daughter for one year.

"My parents were so upset. Nobody was thinking clearly," Dominique now says of her request for the protective order. "I was so upset, too, that I didn't know what to do. My lawyer said, ‘Well, maybe this would be the best thing.' "

Moceanu says it was her departure from Moceanu Gymnastics and the bad publicity it generated, not high operating costs, that resulted in the facility's 1999 closing.

"I was the reason why a lot of the kids came," she says. "And when you're going through a hard time publicly, a lot of people don't want to be there anymore."

When asked about the state of her trust fund, she replies, "My investment [in the gym] is my trust fund." The facility is currently being leased as warehouse space.

The rift between Moceanu and her parents began to mend in April 1999, when the gymnast, then living and training in Colorado Springs, Colo., came home for Easter.

"It's hard to let that pain go," she admits. "It took us a little while to heal." She now believes she naively acted on bad advice from a number of different people, that her father was only trying to protect his underage daughter from those he thought might take advantage of her.

"As I get older, I realize how important your family is," Moceanu says. "It's a lot different than when you're younger. You don't see the big picture. It makes me want to be more of a part of their lives, especially with my sister. I want to really be there when she's growing up."

Christina spent the summer with her big sister, staying at Dominique's just-purchased three-bedroom home in the eastern suburbs and accompanying her to coaching stints at gymnastics camps. Christina isn't being pressured to follow in her sister's Olympic footsteps. In fact, Moceanu hopes Christina wins a college scholarship, not a gold medal, in her chosen sport of volleyball, an activity she discovered after first trying gymnastics and swimming.

"I told my parents, ‘Let her play a team sport, something that she can go to college with, something that she would really enjoy, and have the real college experience — a normal life,'" Dominique says. "That's what I want for her."

?er words apparently haven't fallen on deaf ears. Camelia asks about the women's volleyball team at The Ohio State University, one of the colleges Christina has expressed interest in, while watching her eldest daughter work with her charges on their tumbling passes at the gym.

Dominique, for her part, seems to be enjoying college life. She proudly points out that she made the dean's list with a 3.75 grade-point average her first semester at Tri-C. This fall, she'll return to her coaching at Gymnastics World and continue her studies at the University of Akron, which she chose on the strength of its business program. Her choice of four-year schools, she hopes, will keep her near Canales, who would like to do his three-year residency at St. Vincent Charity Hospital.

"I want to open my own preschool gymnastics someday, then maybe gear it out to tumbling, cheerleading and also some volleyball, because my sister's in volleyball," she says of her own career goals.

What about returning to the sport that made her a household name? Moceanu says she'd like to begin entering professional competitions next year and do an exhibition tour after the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

"I need about six or seven months to get in shape," she says. But she isn't looking to compete for another Olympic medal. Even if she shed the necessary 15 to 20 pounds from her 5-foot-2 frame so she could resume the training needed to regain her competitive edge — "The lighter you are, the easier it is on your bones" — an old shoulder injury would limit her to beam and floor exercises.

"If I didn't have other goals right now, it would be something that's in the back of my head," she says. "But school's going to get me where I want to get to now. Gymnastics? I've been there, done that."


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