Dominique Moceanu is remembered as the youngest gymnast on the iconic 1996 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Atlanta. But her second act in the sport has been just as impactful. Her role in breaking an industrywide silence about the abusive methods of longtime coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi later led her to a central role in supporting the survivors of Larry Nassar's sexual abuse.
Moceanu's journey from Karolyi protégée to whistleblower began with a 2008 HBO interview in which she described the emotional scars left by her years with the coaching duo who shared her parents' Romanian background and driving ambition. Moceanu later detailed her experiences in a 2012 memoir. Her outspokenness cost her dearly. She was ostracized from the sport for a decade and accused of seeking money and attention. Yet her role as one of the few former athletes who defied the Karolyis' grip on U.S. gymnastics ultimately led others to trust her with their truth. Now 38, Moceanu, who owns a gym in Ohio with her husband, Mike Canales, details her journey from outcast to insider, in her own words.
IN JULY 2016, USA Gymnastics invited all of us former Olympians to a reunion at Olympic trials in San Jose, California. It was the 20th anniversary of the Magnificent Seven and our 1996 win in Atlanta, so USAG had to invite me. Given how they'd treated me, I thought about not going. But since they were honoring my team, I didn't want to be the only teammate who didn't show up, so I decided to go. I'm glad I did.
It was great to reconnect with so many friends and former Olympians. At the end of the weekend, a bunch of us gathered in a hotel room to have a few drinks and tell stories late into the night. My husband, Mike, and I were having a good time, talking with friends, when all of a sudden, I heard a loud knock at the door. Jamie Dantzscher, who was on the 2000 Olympic team, came in and made a beeline straight to me. She's like, "I need to talk to you."
I hadn't seen Jamie in years, and she looked serious. We walked out onto the patio and closed the sliding glass door for some privacy. "Did Larry Nassar ever put his finger inside you?" she asked. That was the first thing she said to me.
I said, "No. Why?"
She said, "He did this to me."
I asked her if he did it to anyone else. She said, "Yes. I've been asking people all weekend, trying to figure this out." She mentioned some names and said she knew of at least five other women. All these thoughts were flooding my head.
I said, "Jamie, what he did is not OK." I remember thinking something is terribly wrong. Deep down, I knew this had to be reported. I knew he hadn't stopped at five.
Jamie also hadn't planned to come to the reunion because she didn't feel welcome at USAG events. She had also been treated like an outcast for years for having spoken up about Bela in the past. "I really respect what you've done, how you've spoken up," she said. "I knew you'd listen to me with an open heart."
IN THE SUMMER of 2008, I began speaking publicly about the abuse I experienced during my years training with Bela and Martha Karolyi. The Beijing Olympics were right around the corner, and Jennifer Sey, a former national champion, had written a memoir about her own painful experience in elite gymnastics. Jen wasn't a Karolyi gymnast, but her book, released that spring, began a national conversation about abusive coaching in gymnastics. HBO's Real Sports did a show around the topic and reached out to me for an interview.
I remember giving myself a pep talk right before I went on camera. "Am I going to do this? Why do I want to do this? This could change everything."
I told Mike that I was really nervous that I might say the word "abuse" out loud. He said, "It's OK. It's the right thing to do. I support you." I needed to hear that. I had someone in my corner for the first time. And I felt like I had to say the word. I was tired of the charade, tired of hiding my true experience publicly. I'd done it for too long.
After I said for the very first time that abuse was going on in our sport, Jon Frankel, who interviewed me, asked, "Well what do you mean, abuse?"
I know he was supposed to question me, but I could feel anxiety building up. I thought, "Here we go. I have to explain it." I said, "The athletes are being treated inhumanely."
At the time, I was still tense and timid about divulging everything, but it was a start, a turning point. The interview went well. Privately, I had people emailing me, saying, "Thank God you did this. Thank you, Dominique. You're right about it all."
I was like, "Why can't you guys say this publicly? It looks like I'm an outlier, like nobody else believes or thinks this." Publicly, I got so much backlash. On Twitter, people called me a fame whore. They said I was attention-seeking, that I was doing it for the money. They were so off base. Verbal and emotional abuse and overtraining had been happening for years in gymnastics, and I had every right to speak the truth. My truth. Why was I being condemned?
People asked, "How come nobody else is backing you up?"
Because they were afraid. They didn't want to lose their good standing with USA Gymnastics, like I did. They wanted to keep being invited to events and getting interviews. They wanted to keep making money. Don't say that I'm out for money, because I lost everything, every opportunity and sponsorship. I was treated like a leper for a decade. It was hard being one of the fiery few trying to have a voice and make a positive change.
NOT LONG AFTER the interview aired, Trudi Kollar, a former Romanian Olympian who competed under the name Emilia Eberle, called me. She lives in Sacramento now, and her local TV station asked her to give an interview about her experience with the Karolyis in Romania. I'm a first-generation American. My parents, like Trudi and the Karolyis, grew up in Romania. For two people who had never met, we had a lot in common.
She was so nervous. I said, "Just be yourself and tell the truth. The more people who get the courage to speak up, the more these stories are going to be believed."
She said, "Dominique, I still have nightmares about Bela. I still wake up in a panic in the middle of the night. I'll grab my husband's throat because I feel like he's Bela, coming after me, hitting me with a chair like he did in Romania." I said, "The fact that you still have nightmares means you never fully dealt with this and it still haunts you. Look at how traumatizing it can be, even years later."
I told her, "You can do this. It's the right thing." And sometimes you just need to hear that when you've been beaten down so many times. I know I did.
There were things that we didn't have to explain to each other, even though we trained decades apart in different countries. I believed every word she told me because I know what that environment was like for me. I recognized my experience in her stories.
In November, Trudi gave that interview to her local television station, and her teammates and former coaches confirmed her stories. She told me that since that day, she hasn't had a single nightmare.
I DIDN'T HAVE a relationship with Bela or Martha for years after the 1996 Olympics. But up until the Atlanta Games, Bela and my father, Dimitry, had been close friends. My father didn't have many friends. Bela was one of the few. Our families spent holidays together.
In 2003, I swallowed my pride and called Bela to tell him my dad had cancer and wasn't doing well. I said, "I think you should give him a call. You're one of his few friends, and it'd be nice for you to call and check on him."
Five and a half years went by and not one call. Then he showed up at my dad's funeral in late 2008. I was standing at the front of the room, fully pregnant, watching my dad's mom crying over my father's open casket. My sister nudged me and said, "Bela's here."
I turned my attention to the center aisle and watched this big, 6-2 guy who was part of my former life walk toward us. I thought, "You didn't call the man one time in five years, after I asked you to, and you show up at his funeral?" That was the final straw for me.
After the service, we all went to the lobby, and my dad's funeral turned into a photo op with Bela. I said to him, "This is not the time or place. Out of respect, you shouldn't be taking pictures with people who are here for my father's funeral. There are boundaries."
He asked me to take a picture with him. I didn't.
TWO YEARS LATER, as I continued to speak out and share my truth, I was in the same room as Bela for the first time since my dad's funeral. My friend and Magnificent Seven teammate, Kerri Strug, was getting married in Tucson, Arizona.
I walked into the reception the night before the wedding and saw Bela on the other side of a crowded room. I stayed far away and enjoyed the night. It was a beautiful event, and I was celebrating my friend. But you know when you can feel someone staring at you? That's how I felt much of the night. I'd turn to see Bela glaring at me.
At the end of the party, Mike and I said our goodbyes and left through a back door. All of a sudden I heard, "Domi! Domi!" I stopped in my tracks and turned around. I was face-to-face with Bela. He grabbed my shoulders and said, "Domi. Try to remember the good times. You're the youngest champion ever!"
I didn't say anything. I didn't want to talk to him. He just kept repeating, "Try to remember the good times. Try to remember the good times." I thought to myself, "Why is he trying to tell me this now?" He tried to come in for a hug, and I turned my shoulder away.
IT TOOK ME seven years to write my memoir, "Off Balance," which was released in June 2012. It made some headlines, landed on the New York Times bestseller list and was reviewed in several magazines. I wish I could say it had a larger impact on changing the culture of the sport at the time. Personally, it cost me friendships and opportunities and basically severed my relationship with the governing body of gymnastics. But I needed to write that book. I had so much truth yet to be told that I felt like I had a weight pressed on my heart, and if I didn't release it, I couldn't heal. I was about to explode with all that I had to say.
I was toying with all sorts of emotions about the severe backlash I would get. I got a taste of it in 2008, the moment I started speaking out. I had to work hard to make my way back professionally from that moment. I couldn't get sponsorships. No doors opened for me because [former USA Gymnastics president] Steve Penny closed them constantly. He told people not to sponsor me or hire me. People would not say, "I believe her." I couldn't get anyone to say that for years. I became a social pariah within my own community. People were so quick to discard me as a human being.
The book came out in an Olympic year, and the Karolyis were on this huge pedestal. Martha was untouchable. It made me sick to my stomach to watch gymnastics for many years, the way the Karolyis were glamorized as the coaches who made these athletes great. No. Their personal coaches and the time the gymnasts invested made them great.
Martha hadn't coached a personal gymnast since Kerri and me in 1996. She didn't have a magic formula. Do enough numbers, put athletes under enough pressure, pluck the very best in the country and as soon as they get hurt, kick them out and replace them with the next one in line -- that's not magic. You could put Pinocchio in Martha's position and he could have made the USA a winning program.
If you ask the athletes, they don't adore the Karolyis as much as was put out on TV. The Karolyis have caused a lot of damage. And that's lifelong damage. Athletes were demeaned. They were underfed. They trained while injured. Give the athletes credit for surviving, for trying to be their best in a sport that they love under those conditions.
THE DAY AFTER my conversation with Jamie in that hotel room in San Jose in 2016, I called her and said, "Jamie, this absolutely has to be reported. Please call the police. If this happened to you and five others that you know of, there is no chance that he stopped. This is the beginning of something much larger than us. If we don't stop him, he's going to do it to other people."
Jamie was worried about being looked at as a troublemaker again. She doubted herself and whether people would believe her. I told her to put that aside for the well-being of all the kids Nassar had access to, and I told her it was the right thing to do. I connected her with Katherine Starr, the president of a not-for-profit that advocates for athletes who have been abused. She connected Jamie with John Manly, a California attorney who now represents more than 200 Nassar survivors. I encouraged her and kept following up with her.
Shortly after that, Jamie filed a lawsuit under an anonymous name, and she and Rachael Denhollander gave the first interviews to The Indianapolis Star, which changed everything.
For weeks after that first conversation with Jamie, before Nassar's abuse was public, more women reached out to me. I listened to them and directed them to people who could help them psychologically and emotionally, and who could help them report Larry's crimes.
When his sentencing hearing happened in Michigan, Mike and I drove from our home outside of Cleveland to be in the courtroom to support the women in person as they gave their impact statements. I will always be thankful that I had the strength to get them to the right people and follow up with them and support them. It made me feel like I had a purpose.
THE BEST THING that's come of the past decade of my life is that I became interwoven in all of these women's stories. I became someone they could trust. In a strange way, I think that ended up being my role in all of this. And I was honored to do it quietly and without recognition.
But in 2017, my hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle, wrote a story about me after an official report commissioned by USA Gymnastics exposed abuses within the sport. The headline read, "Report vindicates Dominique Moceanu." My mouth dropped. I never thought there would come a point where somebody would say that. But there it was, in black and white.
If you need help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673); the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255); or ChildHelp, 1-800-4-A-Child (422-4453), for safe, confidential services. You are not alone.