FAIRFAX, Va. -- She is tiny, even by the seemingly minuscule standards of a sport in which some of its smallest athletes often become the world's giants. She will be 14 in August, and barely looks 10.
But there is something about Dominique Moceanu that seems different from many of those who have preceded her, those who have become champions as well as casualties in the sometimes tragic world of women's gymnastics.
She even smiles when's she's not supposed to.
"I don't fake smile," she said yesterday.
Moceanu has had a lot to smile about in the past year. Since winning the junior national championships last summer in Nashville, Tenn., Moceanu has gone from being one of the country's best prospects to one of its brightest hopes for next summmer's Olympic Games in Atlanta.
"She's going to be one of the great ones," Bela Karolyi, her coach of the past 4 1/2 years, said yesterday.
Karolyi has been prone to such hyperbole in a career that has produced many of the sport's greatest names as well as its share of highly publicized burnouts, but in this case, it seems justified. The next 15 months will determine whether Moceanu will turn her coach's pre-Olympic puffery into real Olympic gold.
Moceanu, in third place after the first night of the two-night Visa Challenge at the Patriot Center last night, already has drawn comparisons to Karolyi's most legendary proteges, Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton. Karolyi sees traits of both in this 4-foot-5, 70-pound eighth-grader whose former Houston classmates derisively called her "Shorty" until a few of them saw her on television.
"If you look at her face, she looks a little like Nadia might have at that age and her personality is similar to Mary Lou," said Karolyi. "She's an open book, open and free and happy all the time. She's in this because she wants to be."
But Moceanu certainly was nudged in this direction by her father, Dimitri, who was a promising member of Romania's junior team a few decades ago until his mother forced him to give it up to concentrate on his schoolwork.
When Dominique was 3 years old, the elder Moceanu called Karolyi to see if he would take on his daughter as a student. Karolyi, whose Houston gym became a magnet for the sport's rising female stars after Retton's stunning performance during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, told his fellow ex-patriot to wait.
'I told him, 'Let the kid grow up,' ", said Karolyi, who now also coaches not-quite 6-year-old Christina Moceanu.
Said Dominique: "When I told my father I wanted to become a world-class gymnast, I didn't even know that he had called Bela."
Her career has not been without its share of disappointments. Nor has she been free of injury, as evidenced by a pair of sprained ankles that has hampered her performances at times. Yet there seems to be a bit more of an emotional balance to Moceanu that wasn't there in some of Karolyi's former prospects.
"I think it's been really nice," said Moceanu, who seems as poised giving interviews as she does in competition. "You have to want to be out there. There has been criticism [of Karolyi]. It's not so much that we're being tortured. We're not. It's the people who don't want to work as hard who usually say that. You can't get anywhere in life without hard work."
Except for the rough treatment she was given by some fellow students at a local public school -- she has moved to a private school -- Moceanu is looked upon as a star-in-making and those around her, including some of her fellow competitors, have become somewhat protective.
Former world champion and two-time Olympian Svetlana Boguinskaya, who at 22 is coming out of retirement to compete for Belarus, now works out with Moceanu at Karolyi's Gym. "First of all, she's a real smart kid," said Boguinskaya, who is in second place after last night. "She's going to be the best in the world, hopefully. She has to build her confidence and her strength. She's just so little."
Comaneci, who has become something of a mentor for Moceanu, was quoted last year as saying, "She's very ambitious. If she puts something in her mind, she's not going to leave the gym unless she does it."
What Moceanu has in mind is what Comaneci did 19 years ago in Montreal, what no American female has done since Retton did in 1984: win Olympic gold. But for Moceanu, it goes beyond Atlanta. "I want to be somebody," she said.
She is already, all 53 inches and 70 pounds of her.
NOTES: Reigning U.S. champion Dominique Dawes of Gaithersburg led after the first night's competition, which included the vault and uneven bars. Dawes scored a 9.8 on the uneven bars and had a 19.37 total.