Sports

A Gold Medal Olympian Says That Youth Athletes Need To Hear Our Voices

She was the first gymnast to stand up against USA Gymnastics for inappropriate behavior. by Dominique Moceanu

August 17, 2017
Dominique Moceanu at the 1995 World Championships. Image by Eileen Langsley, used with permission.

When Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu was a toddler, her parents tested her strength by having her try hanging from a clothesline. Since then, that strength has been tested over and over again. The retired international elite gymnast, New York Times best-selling author, and advocate’s physical strength — which was honed via thousands of hours of sweat and hard work in the gym — is matched only by her mental tenacity and willingness to champion positive change, no matter the consequences.

She became the youngest American female gymnast to capture the junior national title at the tender age of 10 and then the youngest to win the senior national title at age 14. At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, she and her six teammates made history when they won the first team gold medal for women’s gymnastics and became the “Magnificent Seven.”

Now a wife of a fellow elite gymnast and a devoted mother of two, Moceanu is a coach and choreographer and an active philanthropist with a number of causes for children, such as Team World Vision and Wigs for Kids. But she’s most passionate about spending her time and energy advocating for youth athletes and victims of sexual abuse, working with Safe 4 Athletes as a spokesperson and serving as a special ambassador on the board of advisers of The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse.

In her 2012 memoir, “Off Balance,” and subsequent HBO interview with Bryant Gumbel, Moceanu revealed the depths of emotional and physical abuse she and other elite gymnasts were exposed to in order to secure success at the highest level. She was the first elite to file a formal grievance with USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport, about unethical behavior. The organization just released a massive report by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels that proved Moceanu’s complaints were not only valid, but more widespread than previously acknowledged. 

During the past year, former USA Gymnastics national team physician, Dr. Larry Nassar, has been accused by more than 100 women of sexual assault, including former Olympians and national team members. Similar widespread abuse allegations have recently been exposed in USA swimming and tae kwon do, prompting a new bipartisan bill to be introduced — the Protecting Young Athletes from Sexual Abuse Act — to implement mandatory reporting and a safer overall system of checks and balances for organized sports in order to prevent sexual and other abuses of child athletes. Moceanu testified in March before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on behalf of the women who have come forward.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) greets Moceanu before she testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2017 about abuse by USA Gymnastics officials. Image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Moceanu shares how the good and the bad that comes with being an elite gymnast influences her life’s work now and why she’s committed to protecting the youth athletes of the future, as told to Kristin Marguerite Doidge for GOOD:

Gymnastics played a huge role in my life very early on. I started gymnastics at the age of 3 and truly loved it. I loved being able to jump on the trampoline and feel that amazing feeling of flying in the air. Little by little, I would go higher and higher, and I would catch skills quickly and learn the cartwheel and learn the back handspring and then move on to more difficult things.

My family moved from Chicago to Tampa, Florida. I started to compete there for the first time, when I was in elementary school, with Jeff and Julie LaFleur. They stuck with me, and my gymnastics blossomed in a lot of ways. And they were just really great coaches. I had the right combination of sternness but also care. I believe that Jeff’s background in the sport helped. He used to be an elite gymnast, so he had empathy for his gymnasts that he trained. He could also be stern when he needed to be.

When I look back, I have nothing but great memories in my early childhood of gymnastics because it is a beautiful sport.

Moceanu at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Image by Eileen Langsley, used with permission.

Later on, when things became more stressful, I think gymnastics helped me in so many ways in life because I had to be a very, very strong competitor in my mind. At 10 years old, I became the junior national champion, and that really showed me that I could be strong in my mind and that I could be great in the sport. I won the junior national title on balance beam, which is one of the toughest events to do it on because it takes such mental strength. I was always the one trying to work at balance beam — that was my weakness at the time. And so that really gave me a boost.

And then competing internationally for the first time, being selected for the Pan-American Games and going down to Brazil to wear the red, white, and blue was something really spectacular and special. When I look back, I can't believe I was 10! I went out of the country, and I competed, and I was only two years away from where my son is now.

There are so many great experiences I had in gymnastics, and there were good people I trained with. I'm thankful for those people and for what they taught me. I'm thankful they showed me care and love. I wish I had more of those people when I became an elite because the rest of my career after 9 and a half, I was an elite. That kind of culture shifted and changed for me, and I realized, “Wow. This is very very different.”

It was scary to first come out and talk about these things. I felt very alone. I was the first gymnast to file a grievance against USA Gymnastics for inappropriate behavior and what I thought was biased treatment in 2006.

In the process of writing my book [published in 2012], my husband gave me the strength I needed. It took me seven years to write it. He saw the aftermath and gave me the courage so that I could also be prepared to help others 10 years down the road. I had a lot of private support — I had former gymnasts email me and judges email me and coaches, but they said, “I can't say anything publicly, but I'm really proud of you.” And I just thought, why is everybody hiding their support?

Moceanu with her family. Image courtesy of Dominique Moceanu.

Fast forward the clock to now and why I stepped up for these women: First of all, they came to me and told me what happened. And I was the only one to do the right thing and get them to the proper help and get them to report it. That was the right thing to do. I have strong feelings about having them not feeling alone.

You don't have to say anything bad about the organization other than “I support the women.” Step up and make a statement and support the people who have come forward. Because the power is in the athletes’ voices. But we all have to stand together on this. I will support anybody that wants to come forward, and I will offer them guidance.

And that's the part that I think a lot of people need to understand with all that is coming out is that this is a very deep story. There's so much more to it.

Nassar had access to more children than anyone.

I believe parents have to play a huge role in their child's lives, especially when they're bringing them to sporting activities. We can't always stay at every practice — that's just not feasible for three or four hours at a time — but what we can do is teach our children early on about spotting predators and also what is “good” touch and what is “bad” touch. And teach our children early on to not be scared to tell us, to tell an adult. I think parents have to be very vigilant, and they also have to know that any type of inappropriate behavior can be reported to the police. And I think we have to all as a community let the police handle these kinds of cases because they're trained in this kind of investigation.

Most parents are good and well-meaning, but they have no clue. I can't tell you how many times I spent in the gym alone with an adult male because I was the only elite gymnast. It was really tough to train alone. And thank God Alexander Alexandrov [my coach at the time] was great to me. But I just look at how vulnerable of a situation I was put in. I was in the gym with him three times a day. I would say we should not allow anyone to be with any coach male or female ever alone in the gym. If we’d had predator training required by all coaches, we could spot the signs more.

My husband had a phenomenal experience in gymnastics. He loves the sport so deeply to this day. He had not one bit of a negative experience, but he always stood by my side and believed everything that I said because he has seen how it affected me.

We have to empower our children and make sure they have great experiences.

Learn more about supporting Safe 4 Athletes.

Share image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Eileen Langsley.

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