Life According to Dominique Moceanu

Dominique Moceanu was among the brightest stars of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the gymnastics squad that won the United States' first-ever women's team gold medal in the sport. Moceanu made headlines again two years later, when the then-17-year-old filed to be legally declared an adult and gain control of her life from her father. Today, the 30-year-old is married to former gymnast Michael Canales, a foot-and-ankle surgeon at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, and is raising two toddlers. She's also a motivational speaker and gymnastics-camp coach. Her memoir, Off Balance (Simon & Schuster, $24.99), was published last month.

In a lot of ways, gymnastics chose me. My parents grew up in Romania at a time when gymnastics was thriving because of Nadia Comaneci. My mom is exactly the same age as Nadia Comaneci. And my dad loved the sport as well. It was like I was destined to do it.

By 10 years old, I was already an elite gymnast. I didn't have time to think: Is there anything else?

When I was a child, I was always told how many things were wrong with me. There were belittling comments. I was never thin enough. I was never perfect enough. Those words hurt coming from your coaches because you look up to them.

I had a bad body image for a while. I was 13, 14. I was being placed on a scale — 70 pounds, 4-foot-4. I was the smallest one on my team in size and weight.

It was very difficult to move on past that for a little while; not have some self-doubt. Unfortunately, I let them steal a lot of my joy.

How do I feel about my former coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi? Well, we have no relationship. They were master manipulators, verbally and emotionally abusive. There are still undertones of their methods today. They have a big stranglehold on the sport, and they just treat people unfairly. People have got to speak out, but they're afraid.

Good coaches are sympathetic and understanding when it comes to injuries. They expect a lot out of you, but they don't yell at you, they don't belittle you and they don't threaten you. They coach in a manner that builds strength. You build loyalty and trust together.

Gymnastics is a model for life. I learned to be punctual. I learned great discipline. I learned how to perform and compete in something I love to do.

One of the big lessons I learned from the Olympics is that I can't define success and fulfillment just by the color of a medal around my neck.

People think you carry your gold medal around all the time, wear it around the house. But I rarely get it out.

I wish I had never left home. But I had to do it prematurely because it was a fork-in-the-road moment for me at that time. I was trying to get away from the pressures of training, the pressures of my father, the pressures of everyone telling me what to do, what to eat, how to look, when to sleep.

I didn't have the freedom to make the choices that I wanted to make in my life. It became very much of a power struggle between my father and me.

One of the worst things that happened to me was losing a parent. On Oct. 12, 2008, my father lost his 5 1/2-year struggle with cancer, a very rare cancer of the lacrimal gland in his eye. I was really thankful to have made my peace with my father. I was happy he was able to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. We had a tumultuous relationship.

I had left the sport on two surgeries. I didn't make the 2000 Olympic team because I got injured. It was a blessing in disguise. I wasn't meant to be on that team. And it allowed me the freedom to begin college and move on with my life.

Mike and I connected again — after meeting when we were children — in 2001. He still was such a student of gymnastics, and he loved it so much. I was drawn to him for that because it was at a time in my life when I'd lost my love for the sport.

My house was a stress-filled, crazed gymnastics environment. I don't want my children to feel that kind of stress and turbulence in their home. I want them to feel peace and calm, to enjoy childhood.

My husband and I know the steps to becoming an elite-level gymnast. If our children choose to go that route, we will support them. We will guide them to the best of our ability.

A lot of the girls that I used to coach would always tell me, "I want to be famous." And I'd say, "Be careful what you wish for. Do you want to live your life under a microscope all the time, every time you walk out the door of your house? Do you want to have that ultimate pressure of being on your game almost every single day?"

It took me many years to get there, but I realized that gymnastics was what I did, not who I was.

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