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 before the Olympics, working out three hours in the morning and four to five hours in the afternoon. Moreover, she had had to endure the Svengali-like Karolyi, who drove his girls to the breaking point, forcing them to train despite injury, belittling their every mistake, weeding out the weak, and molding the strong in his image. Yet as Karolyi had often said—and proved over and over—his method was the best path to an Olympic gold medal. That was the trade-off: hard work for a shot at fame.

What’s more, for better or for worse, it is impossible for a young girl to get that shot without parents who push her, who keep her from going to the mall whenever she wishes, and who force her to follow a strict low-fat diet. Dumitru and Camelia wouldn’t be interviewed for this story, but in press conferences, court hearings, and other interviews, they have denied that Dominique was ever abused. “No one cared more about my daughter’s life and happiness than her mother and I did,” Dumitru said. If anything, Camelia added, they had “spoiled” Dominique. Many times, she insisted, Dominique was allowed to have ice cream.

Dominique told me a different story. Only a few people knew it, she said, but she often lived in fear of her father. He’d yell at her, especially when she made mistakes at competitions, like the time after the 1996 Olympics that he screamed at her because she did not perform well enough to earn an individual medal. And, she alleged, he occasionally slapped her.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the autocratic Dumitru, steeped in the patriarchal tradition of Eastern Europe, struck Dominique. When asked in one court hearing if he had ever hit her, he lamely said, “I don’t remember.” How often he physically disciplined her, however, is a matter of dispute. In interviews with other reporters, she has said he slapped her a couple of times a year, but she told me that she remembered only two speciÞc occasions in the past few years: after he discovered that she was hiding candy in her room and when he put her on the scale and saw she was gaining weight. “Even when I got older, he thought he had the right to slap me, but it wasn’t right,” Dominique said. “It was abuse.” Still, I found myself wondering whether the environment Dumitru had created at home was enough to turn Dominique into a beaten-down child. When I asked her about her parents’ behavior during her training for the Olympics—their insistence, for example, that she be at Karolyi’s for every single workout—she said, “Well, yes, I understood what they were doing. I appreciated it. You need to have that discipline to be at the top.”

Then again, Dumitru, who years ago was forced by his parents to abandon a promising gymnastics career for school, did seem to get caught up in his daughter’s world, projecting his own hopes and dreams onto her. After sacriÞcing so much early in her career—he spent more than $200,000 on her training and moved the family several times so that she could have the best coaches—he decided he had the right to control her money, but Dominique’s former agent, Stan Feig, says Dumitru is trying to “build an empire” off of her. In 1996 Dumitru stopped selling cars so that he could run Moceanu Gymnastics, whose construction he paid for with a combination of Dominique’s earnings, his own savings, and $750,000 in loans. But the gym is widely ridiculed within the gymnastics community as overly extravagant, and it has been a far from successful venture: Dumitru’s attorney, Katherine Scardino, acknowledges that he has been under signiÞcant Þnancial pressure as a result of the gym, which in the summer runs up enormous electric bills (Sports Illustrated put them at between $5,000 and $7,000 a month; Scardino says those Þgures are wrong).

More than a year ago, Dominique said, coaches and other gymnasts began telling her that she should have a greater say about how her money is spent. For instance, on a post-Olympics tour with fellow members of the U.S. team, she was making $5,000 to $6,000 per appearance, but it was all supposedly going to her trust fund, which she couldn’t legally touch until age 35. “I realized I was the one doing all the training, earning the money, and my parents were living off of me,” Dominique told me. Yet whenever she broached the subject with her father, she said, he would get furious and tell her she was too young to worry about such matters. “If you ever get money, you’ll leave us,” he allegedly told her. Apparently, the more she chafed under his control, the more controlling he became. He was so insistent on knowing everything about her personal life, she said, that she had to hide when she called friends on the phone. And forget about dating. She was allowed to go out with a boy only once—and a chaperone had to accompany them.

Some of Dumitru’s concerns about Dominique’s personal life seemed to be reasonable, especially those involving Huggins, who regularly visited her at the gym. “Like any father, Dumitru may have wanted to put his hands around the neck of that young man and tell him to go back to his wife and child,” Scardino says. Then there was Miscenco, a well-regarded young coach from Romania whom Dumitru had hired after Karolyi’s retirement. According to Scardino, Dumitru Þred her last October not only because she was demanding more money, a car, and a home of her own but also because she was encouraging Dominique to get control of her money.

For Dominique, who had won the all-around competition at the Goodwill Games in July, Miscenco’s Þring was the last straw. With the help of Huggins, Miscenco, and another friend, she ran away from home. A furious Dumitru said his daughter had been led astray by Huggins and Miscenco, whose real motives, he said, were to get access to her money. While talking to a private investigator he had hired to Þnd Dominique, he ßew into a rage and talked about wanting to kill Huggins and Miscenco. What Dumitru didn’t know was that the private investigator worked as a conÞdential informant for the Houston police and was taping the conversation. According to the Houston Chronicle, a source who has listened to the tapes has said that Dumitru offered to pay $10,000 for the two hits, which were supposed to take place after November 20, and that there was further discussion about how to dispose of the bodies.

Dominique admitted to me that her father often exaggerates and says things that he doesn’t really mean. But she said when she was told by police ofÞcers about the murder-for-hire plot, she raced with Huggins to get out of town. Was she genuinely afraid, or was her Lear jet adventure the ultimate teenage ßight of fancy? “I was terriÞed,” she said. “I think something changed in my father’s mind. I do not know how to explain it, but maybe he was under such stress Þnancially, and he thought he was losing me.”

DUMITRU’S TALK ABOUT MURDER WAS seemingly just that: talk. No charges were Þled by the Harris County district attorney’s ofÞce, who, Scardino says, “could get a ham sandwich indicted.” Still, seeing a chance to elude her father’s grasp for good, Dominique went back to court to ask for a protective order. At another court hearing, in December, Dumitru declined to answer questions about what he said to the conÞdential informant, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He did say, however, that he had never threatened Dominique and would never hurt her.

But Dominique took the stand and said she had seen her father following her and hanging around outside her school on a few occasions since she had left home. One afternoon, she said, he pulled up beside her at an intersection, ordered her to pull off the road, and then talked to her about coming back home. Although Dumitru said he only wanted to make sure she was okay—“We didn’t know anything about what was happening to her,” he said—Dominique testiÞed that she believed her life was “in jeopardy.”

The judge ruled in her favor, ordering Dumitru to avoid all contact with her for a year. Suddenly, Dominique was free—and her name was back on everyone’s lips. She seemed to relish the attention she was getting. While her parents went into seclusion—Scardino says they’re “devastated”—Dominique left the courthouse and immediately ßew to New York, where she appeared on NBC’s Today show to rehash the family feud. (She called her father “a really good person deep down inside” but then described him as “intense and irrational.”) In other interviews she said she did not believe she could ever forgive her father and hoped that he could get his life back in order. When I talked to her, she was with her new agent at a skiing competition in Colorado, where she was relaxing, meeting celebrities, and skiing. She said she hoped to have her mother and nine-year-old sister (both of whom can still see her, according to the judge) over to her apartment for Christmas, and that in early 1999 she plans to take her high school equivalency exams and start training again in Houston. (She will live on a monthly stipend of $800 to $1,000 from U.S.A Gymnastics for being on the national team.) Although she is seven inches taller and 28 pounds heavier than in her Olympic days and is not in competitive shape—she hasn’t trained since early last fall—she believes she can recover quickly, make the 2000 Olympic team, “and prove to everyone that I can come back.”

I wondered aloud if she could really do it—if she could make a comeback on her own, without much family support. How is she going to feel once the media stops calling and she’s alone in her apartment, a teenager who before October had never written a check or paid a bill or prepared her own meals? “I had to take the risk to leave, to be my own person, to be allowed to do what I wanted to do,” she told me. “I know it’s going to work out in the end.”

She paused. “I just know it,” she said again, as if she was still trying to convince herself.