ATLANTA -- Bela Karolyi found out about Dominique Moceanu's magic in the privacy of his Houston gym more than four years ago. There he saw his past, both in Romania and America, in an athlete who looked like Nadia Comaneci, smiled like Mary Lou Retton and worked like Kim Zmeskal.
"She's a happy little kid," Karolyi said. "An open book."
Moceanu introduced herself to the rest of the country by winning the all-around competition at the U.S. nationals in New Orleans last summer and, at the age of 13, becoming the youngest American champion ever. There she saw her future, in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, following in the gold medal legacy of Comaneci and Retton.
"I'm going to have to work even harder now," Moceanu said.
As the years and months have melted down to three days before the opening ceremonies for the Centennial Olympic Games, another wrinkle has been added to the legacy she is trying to follow. It is the stress fracture that has sidelined her for most of the past five weeks.
It has raised questions about whether she should be competing at all -- as well as some doubt about Moceanu's ability to perform up to her previous level -- when the women's compulsories begin Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Moceanu was considered among the favorites before the injury, but the hype that has followed her for nearly a year has quieted and the spotlight is beginning to flicker.
Moceanu was diagnosed with a four-inch fracture of her right tibia June 10, three days after finishing third -- but with the second-best score -- in the U.S. nationals in Knoxville, Tenn. After pulling out of the event finals there, she and former world champion Shannon Miller petitioned to have their scores from nationals held at the Olympic trials in Boston, then hoped their scores were good enough to put them on the seven-woman team.
"The hardest thing about not competing at the trials was watching them," said Moceanu, whose score wound up second to Miller among those going to Atlanta. "It made me realize how much I love gymnastics. It made me think that if I couldn't compete in Atlanta, then maybe I'd want to keep doing it for another four years. But the doctors say that I should be ready, and I keep praying for the best."
She has been back in the gym for nearly two weeks, first at Karolyi's and more recently with the rest of the U.S. team at a training camp in Greensboro, N.C. Her first public gymnastics appearance since the injury came Saturday, when Moceanu and the team put on a exhibition at the Greensboro Coliseum.
With her leg heavily taped, Moceanu performed in three of four routines. Karolyi kept Moceanu out of the floor exercise.
Suspense in Atlanta
Which Moceanu shows up here this weekend is becoming a matter for debate.
Will she be the Moceanu of last summer, the performer who so closely resembled Comaneci of two decades ago that some thought they were related? Will she be the precocious kid who owned the crowd at the Louisiana Superdome while performing a rousing floor routine to the tune of "Let's Twist Again"?
Will she mirror Retton's perfect 10 performance at Pauley Pavilion a dozen years ago? Will she become rich and famous long before she gets her driver's license?
Or will she become the tragic figure Zmeskal seemed to be in Barcelona four years ago, the former phenom who won a world championship at 15 in 1991 and was washed up after falling off the balance beam in her opening routine in the Olympics? Though Zmeskal recovered personally, going back to high school and getting a taste of a more normal life, her gymnastics career was basically finished. She wound up blowing out her knee and never making it back to the top.
"People must be realistic," Comaneci said recently. "You have to leave her a little space. Know that she is good, but let her prove that she's better than you think."
A legacy of injuries
If there is one hope for Moceanu, it is found in the injuries that struck Comaneci and Retton. Comaneci was 14 going into the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and coming off a badly sprained ankle six weeks before the Games. Retton was 16 in 1984, and, five weeks before competing in the Olympics in Los Angeles, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.
But Moceanu's first injury is more serious, and, because it's the first major setback of her career, there's no telling how she'll react.
"She has a very high tolerance for pain," Karolyi said at the trials. "I think she can do it. That's a very unfortunate link and one I'd prefer not to have. But it has happened before, so we know it can be done."
But can it? Moceanu said after some workouts in Greensboro last week that she was still experiencing pain. Moceanu's teammate, Dominique Dawes, recalled how she was injured going into the 1992 Games. The pain affected her performance. "I don't know how she'll do," Dawes said recently about Moceanu. "It's up to the individual."
A choreographed career
This wasn't supposed to happen. Before the injury, each step of Moceanu's career seemingly had been as choreographed as her routines. She was going to go from junior champion to world champion to Olympic champion in three years. She was on the covers of national magazines and even found time to have an autobiography -- "Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion" -- published.
The daughter of former Romanian junior gymnasts, Moceanu seemed destined to return someday to her birthplace: Hollywood, Calif. The story about her father, Dimitru, calling Karolyi when his daughter was 3 1/2 to see if he could take her to Karolyi's gym in Houston -- the coach told the elder Moceanu to wait until she was 9 or 10 -- is the stuff of a script writer's and maybe a sports psychologist's dream.
"It's not pressure," Moceanu said in Boston. "I'm doing this for me, not for anyone else. I have to do this for myself. When a person is ambitious, they can do anything they want."
This might not have anything to do with ambition.
Just a lousy break at the wrong time.
Pub Date: 7/16/96