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'Give your heart'
Olympian shares secrets with young gymnasts
Wednewday, 10/13/04, 7:30am

OCALA - Once upon a time, all the world was a stage. When you thirst for first, fame follows.

For the record, she was youngest American gymnast to:

  • win a gold medal in the Olympics;
  • win a senior national championship;
  • compete at the world championships;
  • earn a spot on the national team.
CINDY SKOP/STAR-BANNER
Dominique Moceanu, foreground, works with Katie Olson, 14, at Balcony Gymnastics in Ocala on Tuesday. (click picture to enlarge)

Let's see. She's met the president, made the cover of Vanity Fair and been featured on a Wheaties box. Is there anything left on Dominique Moceanu's to-do list?

Life has slowed to a leisurely pace since Atlanta. She no longer toils. When she's not in college, she coaches, traveling around the country telling her story to anyone who will listen. She molds and motivates; preaches and prods; sells and soothes.

Balcony Gymnastics welcomed her this week. Kids tumbled more than they stumbled, but strong, sure arms were there to guide them.

"I've come to a point in my life that I can appreciate the sport on a different level," Moceanu said Tuesday while taking a break between sips of bottled water. "Because I teach it, I appreciate how difficult it is. I try to inspire the kids. That's wonderful to me to give back so much. For me, what's important is I can still do tours. That's the fun part for me now."

Moceanu's clinic is scheduled to last three days. She arrived Monday evening and is expected to leave early Thursday afternoon.

"To have her at our gym is extremely special," Michael Hamer, owner of Balcony Gymnastics, said. "We just don't give our kids over to anyone. When we do give them to someone, we want to give them to the best."

For $250, area gymnasts received one-on-one world-class instruction for their floor routines. Jenny Williamson, 12, of Gainesville, paced in the lobby as she waited for her session. So many questions. So little time.

"It's like, 'Wow.' Where do you start?" Williamson said. "There are so many things. I wouldn't be able to say there's just one thing I would ask."

CINDY SKOP/ STAR-BANNER 2004
With guidance from 1996 Olympic gymnist Dominique Moceanu, Katie Olson, 14, perfects her floor routine at Balcony Gymnastics Tuesday. Moceanu is spending the week at the gym helping and teaching ten of the advanced students for their upcoming meets. (click picture to enlarge)
Kendal Hamer, 10, of Ocala, took a lesson and gobbled up a memento. An autographed picture of Moceanu is tacked to her bedroom wall.

"It was fun," Hamer said. "I thought it was going to be easy, but it was hard learning the floor routine. We had to do it over and over."

Moceanu, 23, knows her sport - she started tumbling at age 3 - but her passion continues to simmer.

"For someone who's almost 24, you don't usually see that kind of work ethic," said Hamer, who met Moceanu at a gymnastics camp. "She was here at 8:30 in the morning and she hasn't stopped since."

Her teaching philosophy centers on a path to self worth. Gymnastics is not the only vehicle.

"I tell the kids: Do this for yourself," Moceanu said. "No matter what you're doing, be the best that you possibly can be at it, whether it's academics, gymnastics or another sport. It doesn't matter what it is. Give your heart, never give up and finish what you start. I like kids to finish, because I think that teaches a good lesson."

Moceanu learned to master the basics from Bela Karolyi, the world-renowned coach known for precision and productivity.

"He taught me how to be perfect," Moceanu said. "That's very difficult to do. It was almost like boarding school."

The idea of coaching came from Moceanu's mother, Camelia, who encouraged the career move. However, Moceanu has not always been receptive to parental advice. Two years after the Olympic victory, Moceanu, then 17, filed a lawsuit against her parents to gain control over her trust fund.

Six years later, Moceanu said the family has reconciled.

"My parents and I are doing great. We're fantastic," she said. "Underneath it all, we always did (have a good relationship). The media blew it out of proportion. Sunny days and flowers don't sell stories. That's the bottom line. People want the dirt. Yeah, my dad was tough on me. Because of my parents, that's why I became an Olympic champion. Yeah, when I was 17, I wanted freedom and I wanted control of my finances. I wanted to be an adult, because I was always living in an adult's word and I was a kid. I grew up very fast. There's nothing wrong with that. My dad and I had some personal differences."

Injuries to her knee and shoulder ruined a chance for a second consecutive Olympics at Sydney in 2000. So for two years, Moceanu did what 18-year-olds do. Ate at Taco Bell. Stayed out late. Got up late. Did what she wanted when she wanted, astonishing freedom for an athlete whose childhood was micromanaged toward Olympic glory.

"I try to stay humble," Moceanu said. "I can't have it all. I won a gold at 14. That's pretty darned good. I let myself relax a little bit. I accomplished what I wanted."

The highlight of her career came at age 14 when she helped the U.S. to team gold at the 1996 Olympics. The winning squad was known as the Magnificent Seven - Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Dawes, Amanda Borden, Shannon Miller, Kerri Strug and Moceanu.

"My fondest memory was when I was on the podium," Moceanu said. "Winning the gold and having it strapped around our necks and having the flag raised, the U.S. flag being raised for the first time in history. That had never been done by a U.S. Olympic women's team. We were first. We made history on July 23, 1996. That was it. That was the moment. My life changed after that moment."

Contact Mike Hodge can be reached at mike.hodge@starbanner.com or 867-4148.