June 13th, 2012
07:24 AM ET

Gymnast reveals 'dark side' to Olympic journey

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed.  In her memoir, "Off Balance," in stores this week, 1996 Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu opens up about her life outside the spotlight. 

This is an exciting time for me – with the release of my new memoir, "Off Balance," I’m finally able to reveal the entire story of my life.

Most people may know me as the youngest U.S. gymnast in history to win an Olympic gold medal (at the age of 14) and as a member of the historic 1996 US Women’s Olympic Gymnastic team (also known as “the Magnificent Seven”), the first and only American women’s team to take gold at the Olympics. 

Of course, to achieve the pinnacle of any field, a lot of sacrifices have to be made. I had my share of sacrifices both in and out of the gym. My relationships with the two primary male figures in my early life - my stubborn and volcanic father and my internationally known coach, Bela Karolyi (who coached me during the Olympics) have been written about by various media outlets but never from my perspective.

When you are in the media spotlight as a 14 year old, most think you are having the time of your life - meeting celebrities, going on post-Olympic tours, making magazine covers, Wheaties boxes and photo shoots. For me, however, there was also an untold, dark side.

Despite being a dedicated, hard working, elite athlete earning national and international medals and acclaim, I nonetheless suffered from a warped body image, unhealthy eating patterns and low self-esteem.  Those around me who should’ve been supporting me and boosting my confidence when I needed it most were doing exactly the opposite.

One of the many lessons I’ve learned from my life and career and the hardships I’ve overcome is that my purpose cannot be defined by the color of a medal around my neck. I realized years after I achieved success that what really matters in life is that I recognize my worth as person, not just as a gymnast. 

For me, gaining control of my life, becoming a mother and having a healthy home life has helped me achieve the balance I craved as a child. 

I’ve also learned to be open to new challenges and ready for the unexpected. Four years ago, I was happily married, completing my education and about to give birth to my firstborn when I received the biggest bombshell imaginable. I discovered I had a younger sister, born without legs and given up for adoption at birth by my parents. 

Fortunately, because I had reached a good place in my life, I was able to see the beauty in welcoming this wonderful person into my family.  Getting to know my “new” sister has been a tremendous blessing and one of the best experiences of my life.

soundoff (348 Responses)
  1. Nellie

    I've admired her since watching her on the Olympic stage in 1996. I'm interested to read her memoir. I'm so glad she's in a good place in her life.

    June 13, 2012 at 09:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. erik

    Good for her! I can't imagine a life of flashbulbs and expectation at 14. I could barely tie my shoes at 14.

    June 13, 2012 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Paulo


    June 13, 2012 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Robert

      Don't be such a troll.

      June 14, 2012 at 07:20 | Report abuse |
  4. USA

    Good Luck to All of Them.

    June 13, 2012 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. ORLY?

    OMG, a teenage girl had body image issues? How unusual an dark.

    June 13, 2012 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jenelle

      Don't be such as ass! Yes, we all know most teenagers, especially girls, have body image ssues, but for the majority they are not under the national/international spotlight. Can you at least empathise what it must be like dealing with a negative body image and being in the spotlight at age 14.

      June 14, 2012 at 12:33 | Report abuse |
  6. Starbelly

    This article says almost nothing, I wanted to read about her vomiting into a tub in her closet and never going through puberty.

    June 13, 2012 at 10:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Stephanie

    I watched Dominique change from a person who looked like she loved what she was doing into a person with great sadness in her eyes. How awful for someone so talented and gifted to be abused and develop low self-esteem. She has been through more than she should have had to endure, but I am glad she has been able to deal with her past so that her present is much happier. I wish her only happiness with her family in the future, and I'm sure her children's lives will be better as a result of their mother's background and special perspective.

    June 13, 2012 at 10:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Clay

    Big deal. Obviously she hasn't learned that everybody has a rough time as a teenager.

    June 13, 2012 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. whocares

    Is this serious? Such a rough life.

    June 13, 2012 at 12:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Alan

    whocares,Clay,Starbelly,ORLY?, and Paulo. You are all very sad people.

    June 13, 2012 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Hugh Jass

    You have to start this life so young that 'consent' really isn't possible, then commit and go on with it for years more. Then you are fifteen and too old to compete, so you retire. Whoa.

    June 13, 2012 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Porky Pig

    I am glad everything has worked out for her.

    June 13, 2012 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. AE

    This book reminds me of another excellent book about the dark side of elite gymnastics and figure skating: Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. It'll be interesting to hear Dominique's story from her own perspective...the career of an elite gymnast is so brutal, as to be successful at that level you have to be small, light, shaped like a boy, and fearless. That's why people like Nastia Liukin (22), Alicia Sacramone (24) and Shawn Johnson (20)...all Olympians from 2008...aren't good enough to make the team this year. Johnson is retired, and Liukin performed poorly at the national championships recently.

    That's also why the Chinese gymnasts snuck in a few athletes under the minimum age requirement of 16 in the last Olympics: because in this sport, the most successful athletes are 14 to 16 years old. Puberty is the beginning of the end, like it or not. I can see how this sets the athletes up for lots of physical and mental problems not only while they're still competing, but after they retire...most kids don't make it, yet still drop out of regular school to train 8-10 hours per day. Gymnastics is all they are, and they're lost when they can't compete anymore. It's really sad and fascinating.

    June 13, 2012 at 14:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Consent in young athletes

    This is indeed a sad story. I remember the young woman who did the vault on a broken ankle to win the team gold. Although I cannot remember her name, I remember thinking, "this child is jeopardizing her lifetime ability to WALK to win a gold medal for the team." I remember her coach, Karolyi, carrying her after she managed not to kill herself completing that second vault.

    WHERE were her parents? WHERE was her coach's head in allowing this child to take such a risk? In boxing (which I think is a ridiculous sport), they do stop the fight if it looks like either boxer is going to be permanently injured.

    That young lady was not a stranger–she trained and lived less than 50 miles from me in Plano, TX. Now she has a gold medal for her team. At 20, would it have been worth it if she couldn't walk for the rest of her life, or if she walked with a limp?

    The world of elite sports with children has gotten out of control. At least the football players who are suing the NFL and/or their teams for repeated head trauma were adults who made choices. They knew the risks. What 14 year old does?

    June 13, 2012 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mary

      The gymnast you are thinking of is Kerri Strug. Also, at 20, she is not a child. She is an adult. Her parents are irrelevant at this point. I'll agree that her coach is to blame (he is the coach, after all), but when you are competing in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and your 6 other teammates are counting on you in a team event, sometimes you just gotta do it.

      Also, a broken ankle does not mean you'll never be able to walk again. Recovery is slow, but with much therapy, you will be able to walk normally again.

      June 13, 2012 at 17:55 | Report abuse |
    • MrAnonymous

      Some things to note: she didn't break her ankle. She suffered a 3rd degree lateral sprain (essentially she tore a couple of ligaments)–not really a threat to her ability to walk. As for her parents, they were there in the stands watching. But, as Mary says, that is irrelevant as she was 18 at the time and was more than capable of making her own decision about the second vault. She knew the risk just as much as those adult football players you mention do... She asked Karolyi if they needed a second vault from her and, at the time, they did if they wanted to guarantee a gold. Strug would later say to the media "This is the Olympics, this is what you dream about from when you're 5 years old. I wasn't going to stop." She wanted it just as badly as her coach...

      June 14, 2012 at 10:54 | Report abuse |
  15. Houstonian

    I remember this young lady. The thing I remember most isn't that she won a gold medal with a broken ankle, it's that she sued her parents for emancipation because her father blew through all of HER money. I say good for her for finally being ready to tell the story from her point of view.

    June 13, 2012 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Christopher Mathews

    Houstonian, the young lady with the injury was one of Ms. Moceanu's teammates, Kerri Strug.

    June 13, 2012 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. lizgwiz

    They put her sister up for adoption because she had a birth defect? What, they didn't want her if she couldn't be a gymnast? That's just awful.

    June 13, 2012 at 17:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark

      Unfortunately, giving up children with birth defects used to be pretty much standard practice among eastern Europeans. When the USSR fell apart, there were many exposes about the children left abandoned in squalid orphanages due to defects, especially missing limbs. While she and her siblings were born in the US, her parents were from Romania, where this was pretty common.
      Ironically, the sister who was given up for adoption due to her missing legs went on to do gymnastics.

      June 13, 2012 at 18:48 | Report abuse |
  18. Liz in Seattle

    Blah blah blah. . .my parents were mean . . blah blah . . .body image issues . . blah blah . . . "then I found out I have a sister born without legs who was put up for adoption and I never knew she existed. The end." Wait– what?? Why did this story end right when it was getting interesting?

    June 13, 2012 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cg

      to get you to buy the book, of course.

      June 13, 2012 at 19:29 | Report abuse |
  19. Fifi

    What kind of monster parents give up a child because she is born imperfect? I was reading this wondering what was so hard about Moceanu's life (hey, my mother destroyed my psyche, too, but at least you were supported in some way), when I got to that bombshell. Your parents must have been cold as ice.

    June 13, 2012 at 20:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Katie

    The drive to be perfect should only come from within, and the obsession to be perfect should be tempered by the people who love and support you, especially the adults in your life. It's pitiful when parents forget their roles and foster obsession, and it's abominable when the paid adults in one's life push your obsession to new heights. It's not normal for little girls or teenagers to work out so hard they hurt themselves or stunt their own development. It's not courageous, it's not brave, it's not heroic. It's time everyone acknowledged that.

    June 13, 2012 at 22:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Shilling

    I know life have it's ups and downs. But we have the option to stay up or down.

    June 13, 2012 at 23:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Melanie

      Not when you are a child with strict parents.

      June 14, 2012 at 12:22 | Report abuse |
  22. Baroness

    Shilling...be honest...you have never experienced the bleakness of Clinical Depression. Hope u never are expected to pull urself out of that nightmare.

    June 14, 2012 at 03:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. rh

    Ability and drive in a child is the parent's meal ticket.

    And having experienced clinical depression, and cutting myself, while being physically abused for years, I can see where she had problems with what people told her and how people treated her. My grades never suffered during this time, and I would continually get praise for high grades and being smart. But I was also being beaten daily and told I was garbage.

    Sometimes the ones who aren't quite able to make it are better off.

    June 15, 2012 at 08:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. brandon

    "When you are in the media spotlight as a 14 year old, most think you are having the time of your life – meeting celebrities, going on post-Olympic tours, making magazine covers, Wheaties boxes and photo shoots."

    Really? I think it's part of the skewed body image/world view that would make a person think this.

    I think whenever people look at the TV and see child stars they think "that kids life must be a hell of stage parenting and nonstop drilling/rehearsing/studying/performing".

    I don't think ANYbody looks at those kids and thinks it's rainbows and candy. But, maybe I'm wrong.

    June 15, 2012 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. sara jean

    I think this book took a LOT of courage to write. It not only exposes some of the deepest secrets of gymnastics training by the most famous coaches in the sport, but also revealed personal family secrets, which are usually "kept" in the family, making it even harder to write. Dominique was manipulated by fear, obligation and guilt by her phony and abusive coaches, who only perpetuated the abuse by getting her father to punish her even more at home. This young woman had NO ONE who had her back until she met her Aunt Janice and husband Mike. For those of you who have negative or snide comments, you should think twice before posting. When was the last time your childhood and teen years were being lived on the worlds tv? Dominique has been through a lot in her young life. One experience she did not write about, was her comeback in 2000 at 19. She lost her 2nd chance at olympic gold when she was injured at the Olympic Trials. That had to hit hard after getting so close to the Olys again after her very public emancipation and the dark place she went through following it. She went on to experience her familys home burning down, lost her father to cancer, and then discovered a sister she never knew for 20 years! Come on, I don't know many people who have been through that much before their 30th birthday. And even I have been through a lot myself. Dominique is a very brave young woman and I am so glad she shared her story with the world, exposing the TRUTH for all to see. I hope now she can move on with her life and live in love and happiness with her angel of a husband and two adorable children. I'm so glad she found someone who treats her with the love and respect she longed for all of her life.

    June 17, 2012 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
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