Anyone who had even a passing interest in the 1996 Summer Olympics will likely remember Dominique Moceanu. The tiny 14-year-old gymnast was part of the “Magnificent Seven,” the first American squad to win gold in the women’s team competition. Sharing the spotlight with the group was the legendary Bela Karolyi, a warm-hearted, bear-like coach who propelled Moceanu (and Kerri Strug, who famously vaulted on an injured ankle) to glory.
At least, that was the persona he projected to the cameras.
“Off Balance,’’ Moceanu’s memoir, paints a very different, very dark picture of Karolyi, and of elite gymnastics as a whole. The Olympian — now 30, married, and a mother of two — also covers her troubled home life and the discovery of a sister she never knew, born with no legs and given up for adoption. Part gymnastics tell-all and part inspirational memoir, the narrative trails Moceanu through a youth spent in a competitive pressure cooker amid hidden fear and pain to a better life of her own design.
It all begins with her parents, Camelia and Dumitru (“Tata” to the author), Romanian immigrants joined in an arranged marriage. “It’s not every day you meet someone who was raised in a communist country during a period referred to as the ‘reign of terror,’ let alone when they happen to be your parents,” Moceanu writes. Her father ruled their household — and his prodigy daughter’s gymnastics career — with an iron fist. After several happy, carefree years in the sport, Moceanu was dealt a shock at age 10 when Tata moved the family to Houston so she could train with Bela and Marta Karolyi, who had coached a number of Romanian and American Olympic stars.
On television, “It looked like the Karolyis cared about their gymnasts. . . . As a viewer, I, like most, was clueless as to what actually happened behind closed doors of the Karolyi gym,” she writes. Unfortunately, Moceanu maintains a bit of distance in her storytelling. Much of her prose is direct and unadorned, almost too matter-of-fact for the emotional material. But it is, thankfully, up to the task of delivering an eye-opening take on her sport.
As Moceanu tells it, the tyrannical Karolyis ran their operation with old, run-down equipment and little regard for their athletes’ health, mental or physical. Right before the Olympics, she suffered a stress fracture in her leg, but when she complained about the pain, she says the Karolyis accused her of “becoming weak, faking or exaggerating injury out of laziness.” When the pain affected her practices, she was blamed for eating too much and publicly weighed in front of the whole gym, which fueled the 70-pound Moceanu’s fears about weight — insecurities that would lead to binging and starvation.
She also recalls her coaches calling in extra ammunition as needed: “I sensed that Bela was aware that he could easily have me beaten with one phone call to my father, and I perceived that threat on many occasions.” Moceanu’s account is perhaps most poignant when she describes worrying about what her father and the Karolyis would think when she stood atop the Olympic podium. Despite contributing three stellar routines, her falls on the vault, one of her best events, consumed her. “I knew they felt that I shamed them,” she writes of her coaches, “and I wasn’t sure if I deserved to smile as I received my medal.”
Gymnastics fans may look at the sport in a new light after reading Moceanu’s memoir, which is clearly one of her goals — the revelations come fast and furious. “Off Balance’’ also covers the author’s emancipation from her parents to gain control over her finances at 17, her estrangement and eventual reconciliation with her father, and building a relationship with her formerly secret sister, Jen Bricker. Bricker, a fellow gymnast despite her disability, idolized Moceanu growing up, not knowing they were actually related until many years later. It’s a fascinating example of the ties that bind, and their reunion is heartwarming. But it’s Moceanu’s perspective on gymnastics — timed, of course, to the upcoming Olympics — that takes center stage.