IN EARLY 1992, WHEN SPORTSWRITERS DROPPED BY BELA Karolyi’s north Houston gym, the revered coach would point out a ten-year-old girl named Dominique Moceanu, an engaging sprite who exploded like a firecracker on the balance beam and over the uneven bars. Karolyi didn’t hesitate to compare her with his most famous pupil, Nadia Comaneci, the star of the 1976 Olympics. “She has the spark,” he’d say, and it wasn’t long before she was living up to her billing. At the 1996 Olympics Dominique charmed the world; even when she fell and landed on her head, her dimpled smile was so infectious that audiences cheered wildly for her. She was then fourteen, just four feet six inches tall and 72 pounds, the mascot of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team. She received thousands of letters from adoring girls and boys. She starred in a Kodak commercial. She wrote an autobiography, Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion, in which she described the sacrifices made by her Romanian-born parents. “My parents were the best,” she wrote. “They supported me strongly and encouraged me in every way they could.”
Dumitru and Camelia Moceanu defected from Romania to the U.S. nearly twenty years ago with no money and no grasp of the English language. After recognizing Dominique’s talent, they worked at a Chicago restaurant seven days a week until four in the morning to pay for her training. When they moved to Houston so that Dominique could train under Karolyi, the stocky, balding Dumitru went to work selling used Fords at a car dealership, negotiating in a thick accent with customers who sometimes had trouble understanding him. Camelia, a beautiful woman with long, flowing dark hair, carried home-cooked meals to her daughter at Karolyi’s gym.
After Olympic success, Dominique seemed to be living a fairy-tale life. Her parents gave her a Mercedes for her sixteenth birthday, and when she complained that it was an “old person’s car,” they traded it in for a Mustang convertible. They remodeled their Houston home so that she could have a bedroom fit for a queen: 46 by 25 feet, with a cathedral ceiling, a Chippendale four-poster bed, a private bath with a white marble Jacuzzi, and a 53-inch TV. Nearby Dumitru built a 72,000-square-foot gym with 48-foot ceilings and the most up-to-date equipment. In the back was a 20,000-square-foot private gym reserved exclusively for Dominique to prepare for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
But last fall, Dominique, who’s now seventeen, walked into a Houston courtroom, her eyes fixed to the floor, and refused to glance at the table where her parents were sitting. She had run away from home and was petitioning the court to declare her an adult so that she could control her own life. She announced that her autobiography was a “fable” and that her parents, especially her 44-year-old father, berated her and controlled every facet of her life, including the more than $2 million she’d earned since turning professional at age ten. She told Jane Pauley of the NBC newsmagazine Dateline—who was allowed to interview her at her new Houston apartment as long as she did not divulge its location—that her father “has hit me a couple of times and so has my mom.” She complained to the Houston Chronicle that her parents thought of her only as a source of income and rarely let her do anything that might take away from her career: “I would think, ‘Don’t you guys know anything besides gymnastics? Can’t we go out for ice cream? Can’t you be my mom and dad instead of me being your business?’”
By November the story had become positively bizarre. Houston police detectives told Dominique they were investigating allegations that her father had tried to hire a hit man to kill her new gymnastics coach, Luminita Miscenco, and Brian Huggins, a handsome, married 32-year-old whom she met when he provided Dumitru some equipment for the gym. Dominique went into hiding again, this time in dramatic fashion, flying with Huggins on a Lear jet to Las Vegas and the Cayman Islands. Although the police found no evidence of a murder plot, Dominique decided to go to court once again, this time to get a protective order against her father—one that prohibited him from contacting her or coming within five hundred feet of her school, workout facility, or residence for at least one year. In interviews Dumitru said that his daughter was making up stories about him because she had fallen under the influence of Huggins, an ex-Marine who drives a red Corvette and had discussed with Dominique the possibility of running another gym with him. For his part, Huggins denied any romantic involvement with Dominique, but he clearly loved being part of the soap opera. “This thing has the classic fixings for a best-seller,” he told CNN. “I mean, you’ve got sex. You’ve got attempted murder.”
What could have happened? Along with more than a dozen other journalists, I went to Houston to try to understand how a family could tear itself apart so quickly. Dumitru Moceanu is an emotional man well known for his hyperbole—“He loves to pop off at the mouth in that classic East European way,” his lawyer says—but had he really hatched a murder plot to keep his daughter under his thumb? Were he and Camelia greedy parasites who desperately needed Dominique’s income to pay for their monstrously large gym? Or was this nothing more than a case of a feisty, strong-willed girl angry at her parents for disciplining her? Was the very Americanized Dominique simply going through a phase of adolescent rebellion?
“I DIDN’T HAVE A REAL CHILDHOOD,” DOMINIQUE TOLD ME when I spoke to her by phone. “Basically, I spent most of my free time in the gym.”
I hesitated, wondering what kind of reaction she was expecting. Was she hoping I would feel sorry for her because she didn’t get to do what “regular” kids did? It was true that she had adhered to a arduous training regimen