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Sunday, 07/25/04, 6:35pm

At 9, she enrolled at Bela Karolyi's Houston gymnastics academy, where Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton got their starts.

At 13, she became the youngest girl ever to win the senior all-around title at the National Gymnastics Championships.

At 14, she starred in a Kodak commercial, came out with an autobiography, had Annie Leibovitz photograph her for Vanity Fair and was on the cover of a Wheaties box, along with the rest of the gold medal-winning "Magnificent Seven."

At 17, she filed suit in a Houston court to be declared a legal adult after fleeing the home of her parents, who she claimed thought of her only as a source of income and controlled the more than $2 million she'd won since turning pro at age 10.

It's been a wild ride for Dominique Moceanu, now 22, working toward her business management degree at a Cleveland community college, doing some coaching and back in good graces with her parents.

On Sunday, we caught up with Moceanu, who's no longer the 4-foot-6, 72-pound jumping jack you remember from the 1996 Summer Olympics.

FT: How much of the normal kid experience did you miss out on because of gymnastics?

DM: A lot. I didn't get to go to the prom, I didn't get to do normal after-school activities. I was always stuck training. I gave up a lot of my friendships. I didn't really hang out with kids at school, I didn't make many friends. I was on a completely different schedule than they were, I was always on a different path. I didn't get to do the girly sleepovers and all that stuff. I was on a mission to go to the Olympics someday and I was only 14 when I did it. I was just a baby.

But I got to go to Brazil when I was 10 years old, to compete. I went to Switzerland, I went to Belgium, Japan, Australia. I went to all these beautiful places because of gymnastics. And I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. I've learned so many lessons from the sport itself that I know I'm a better person because of it. I can handle adversity, I can handle obstacles in my life because of what the sport has given me, and the determination and drive helps me with my academics now. I know it's benefited me so much.

FT: Was it pretty much pre-determined that you were going to be a gymnast?

DM: I used to live in Tampa. When I was 8 years old, I told the local news in the first interview that I ever did that my goal was to go to the Olympics one day and win a gold medal. From the moment I said that -- from 8 on -- it became a passion. My parents put me in the right places at the right times with the right coaches, and it finally happened. After my first interview, people were like, "Oh sure, honey. Good luck."

I was one of those bouncy, hyperactive kids. My parents were born and raised in Romania, where gymnastics is very, very huge. My parents decided that their first child would be a gymnast. They put me in it and needless to say, I loved it.

FT: What is your relationship with your parents now?

DM: I have a great relationship with my parents now. Yeah, there were tough times for a little while, but it's great now. It's unfortunate that my life was in the public eye. I didn't realize how many people felt like they had the power to peek into my life and say bad things about me and my family at the time -- that things were really hard for us. But I know now that we're strong enough to beat that, we're strong enough to overcome anything. We're actually closer because of all that now because it didn't break us. We were able to prevail and persevere and make it, and we're OK now.

I was just a kid. This issue was between my father and I, and a lot of people couldn't understand what was going on and wanted to make it a huge story. It was a personal thing that got blown out of proportion. I guess that's the price you have to pay when you're in the spotlight. But people have no idea how many nights of tears there were over that and how hard it was on us.

FT: That update to your story hasn't gotten the exposure that taking your parents to court did.

DM: We did a reunion in Akron Sports and Leisure magazine. They took pictures of the whole family. There will be an article in Good Housekeeping next month. That was important to me -- to finally do an interview with my family and show that we're doing well. Let's get over all that stuff in the past. It was kind of an unfinished story. You got all this attention at this age because of what had happened between you and your family, but no one followed up to do the reconciliation story.

I wanted it this year -- for my family's sake, for mine and for the general public's. You know, what ever happened to that girl that had issues with her family? They're wonderful people. They helped make who I was, they helped sacrifice everything for my dream. Without them, I wouldn't even be here today. People need to realize I'm not this spoiled, little brat. I didn't do anything wrong but try to find myself as a teen-ager and as a young adult. I'm on a good path now with my life. I'm happy.

FT: You know what they say: Scandals sell.

DM: Sunny days and flowers, they don't sell stories. People want drama. That's why all these reality shows are on television now. That's why I tell all these little kids: Be careful what you wish for. Fame isn't always all it's cracked up to be.

FT: You've said that you try to live your life without regret. Do you regret that experience at all?

DM: Surprisingly, I don't regret it. If we didn't go through it, we wouldn't be as strong today. I think it really taught my dad a lesson. I think my dad realized I wasn't a little kid anymore and I'm mature enough to make grown-up decisions. He needs to trust me with that and I think he's starting to.

FT: Since you came on the scene 12 years ago, a lot of young phenoms have followed -- Michelle Wie in golf, Freddy Adu in soccer, Maria Sharapova in tennis. What advice would you give someone going through that experience now?

DM: I always tell my athletes to keep their heads grounded and stay humble, stay appreciative. Being at the peak of your career doesn't last forever. After you accomplish everything you want to in the sport -- whether it goes well for you or not -- you have the rest of your life to live. You always have to have a backup plan. Education is No. 1. I always tell everyone I coach: Go for a scholarship in college. There are so many benefits and rewards.

FT: What's in your CD player these days?

DM: I have a lot burned CDs with a lot of hip-hop music.

FT: Last good book you read?

DM: "The Notebook" and "The Wedding," which is a sequel to "The Notebook." I fell in love with those books.

FT: Last thing: How tall are you now?

DM: 5-4. I'm actually the tallest one from the team now, believe it or not.

Contact D'Alessio at 242-3792 or e-mail jdalessio@flatoday.net