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Young stars must be protected, says Moceanu

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Dominique Moceanu was so immersed in her dream to become an Olympic gold medal-winner that she either overlooked or accepted her mistreatment by the United States coaches.

Moceanu, who visited Bermuda last week, achieved her goal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where she became the youngest American gymnast to claim gold at the age of 14, as one of the most recognisable members of the “Magnificent Seven” team.

She quickly earned media-darling status and public adoration but a sinister side hid behind her success, with Moceanu later revealing she had been emotionally and physically abused by her coaches.

Now 35, Moceanu believes there has long been a culture of abuse in her sport and has become an advocate for young athletes in an attempt to provide them with support and safety measures she herself never received.

“I'm very grateful for the experiences I had in the sport,” Moceanu said. “But I can't change my past and can't change the history of it. All I can do is make my future better and help children through my experiences. I'm honoured to have been part of the first US gymnastics team to win gold; I'm proud to be the youngest US gymnast in history to win gold; and I'm proud that I was the youngest senior national champion in history [at 13].

“Do I wish my coaches had treated me better? Sure I do. I would have loved a better relationship with them.”

Moceanu visited the island for 1 World Bermuda, the Beautiful Games, last week — an annual international amateur and professional multi-sports festival encouraging fellowship and communication between different cultures.

Much of her work life is now spent delivering motivational speeches and promoting the ideal that athletes can have a healthy experience, free from abuse and still be successful at the highest levels of their respective sports.

“I'm passionate about children doing sports in a safe environment, really loving what they're doing, and making sure they're protected,” Moceanu said. “The good coaches will say that they're doing the right things and a lot of them are. But there's also a large portion of our elite gymnastics culture that needs to be changed. There are a lot of people misusing their power and mistreating the athletes.”

Moceanu remembers a tough environment at the Karolyi Ranch outside Houston, Texas — a US Olympic training site — where she spent much of her formative years training under celebrated husband-and-wife team Martha and Bela Karolyi.

In her 2012 book Off Balance: A Memoir, Moceanu said Bela Karolyi encouraged her father to physically abuse her as a motivational tool. Moceanu's father died after a long battle with cancer in 2008.

She also recalls being accused of exaggerating injury — she suffered a stress fracture of the right tibia before the Olympics — out of laziness and being publicly weighed in front of the whole gym.

“My goal of being a champion was so great that I overlooked some of that.” said Moceanu, who now lives in Cleveland with husband Dr Michael Canales — a former top college gymnast — and their two children.

“But I knew it wasn't right. There was a part of me that said, ‘I don't believe this is how I'm supposed to be treated'.

“My parents had made this sacrifice for me to be at this prestigious gymnastics club with all these top coaches and you put a lot of trust in them.

“It doesn't need to be this brutal, communist-style coaching and upbringing. It really doesn't and we have to break that mould and change that way of thinking.”

Moceanu has been even more vocal about her concerns since her sport became engulfed in a sex abuse scandal surrounding Larry Nassar, a longtime US gymnastics doctor, who treated athletes at the Karolyi Ranch.

Nassar, 53, has been charged with 22 counts of sexual conduct, with five of whom were minors at the time, and is facing life in prison if found guilty.

Although Moceanu was not sexually abused, she has spoken out in support for those gymnasts who have come forward and also testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March about sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

She believes the toxic environment at the Karolyi Ranch set the stage for someone such as Nassar to abuse their power.

“It's terrible because so many people trusted [Nassar] and people were looking the other way when there were red flags,” she said. “I was not assaulted by Dr Nassar, but I support the women because they came to me and they trusted me with this information and I helped them report it.

“Children are afraid to speak up because there are these people with complete power and they hold your dreams in the palm of their hand.

“If you say anything or try to speak up, these people may take that away. There's always a threat there; it's unspoken most of the time, but it's there and you know it exists.”

She added: “It's just not appropriate for a male doctor to treat a gymnast alone in their room. People knew that and why was it not addressed earlier?

“There were a lot of missteps and now they're trying to clean it up and it's not even gone to trial yet. There's so much more evolving from this entire situation.”

Despite Moceanu's turbulent relationships with her coaches and father, she still loves her sport and chooses to focus on the good times, particularly her Olympic experience.

“Atlanta was the first time our team really had a chance of gold,” Moceanu said. “With the Olympics being on home soil, the pressure was unsurmountable. We knew we could do it and it felt like all the stars had aligned to make it happen.

“The coaches could have made it a better experience for me; they stole little bits of joy that I could have experienced. It was amazing to be part of something so monumental at such a young age, though.”

By Moceanu's own admission, her life, at times, has resembled a movie with an unbelievable plot- line, none more so than when she discovered she had a “secret” younger sister.

Jennifer Bricker, who was born without legs and was given up for adoption at the hospital at birth, is an acrobat and aerialist who idolised Moceanu before finding out they were sisters.

“Finding a long-lost sister when I was 26 years old was the biggest shock of my life,” Moceanu said.

“Honestly, I look back and can't believe how it all happened. You can't believe it's your life and you're looking at it like it's a movie.

“How many people's childhood idol becomes their sister? That's what happened. She's doing her own thing now and her career's taken off since the launch of our sisterhood.

“We share the same DNA, but we were strangers to each other. We were sisters by blood, but weren't sisters in a relationship yet. We live in different places but we're continually working on the relationship.

“To top it off she was born without legs and was doing gymnastics, tumbling and looked up to me. It will always be an interesting and amazing part of my life.”

Life through a lens: Moceanu, the youngest US gymnast to win an Olympic gold, visited Bermuda last week for the 1 World Bermuda, Beautiful Games (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published May 10, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated May 10, 2017 at 4:36 am)

Young stars must be protected, says Moceanu

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