If 13-year-old Dominique Moceanu were a shopping bag and comparisons were eggs, this diminutive eighth-grader would already be in danger of bursting at the seams and smashing some of the great names in gymnastics all over the sidewalk.
Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Svetlana Boguinskaia, Kim Zmeskal—at various times Moceanu reminds her coach, Bela Karolyi, of them all.
With her dark eyes and Romanian heritage—her father defected from that country in 1979 and her mother followed a year later—Moceanu has a facial resemblance to Comaneci, the star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The 4'5", 70-pound Moceanu (pronounced Mo-che-ah-new) trains every day at Karolyi's gym in Houston with Boguinskaia and Zmeskal, two former world all-around champions trying to make comebacks. "Svetlana's so sharp on her movements, so elegant and expressive," says Moceanu, who has been befriended by both her elders. "Kim's so powerful, and I try to take that with me on the vault."
Her expressive personality evokes in Karolyi the image of the bubbly Retton. "She's an outgoing kid, like Mary Lou," Karolyi says. "She's not a hidden personality. She can laugh one minute and cry the next—an open book. This is a good kind to coach."
There was nothing but laughter last weekend at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where the much-heralded Moceanu lived up to her billing. Competing at the senior level for just the second time, Moceanu, the 1994 U.S. junior national champion, was named all-around champion of the Visa Challenge, a three-country invitational that included some of the best young gymnasts from Belarus, China and the U.S.
One of those she outdid was her mentor and training partner, Boguinskaia, who at age 22 looked fabulous as she came out of retirement to participate in her first international competition since the 1992 Olympics. "In a couple of years she could be the best in the world," said Boguinskaia, who finished fourth after falling during her floor exercise.
That's been the plan all along. Born in, of all places, Hollywood, Calif.—she and her family later moved to Florida—Moceanu has been a gymnastics project from birth. Her father, Dumitru, was on the Romanian junior gymnastics team as a youngster. When Dominique was three, Dumitru called Karolyi, who is also a Romanian expatriate, to see if he could bring his toddler to Houston to enroll in Karolyi's gym. Wait until she's nine or 10, Karolyi told him, advising Dumitru to put Dominique in a local club until then.
Fast-forward to 1991. Nine-and-a-half-year-old Dominique was watching a gymnastics competition on television when she said to her father, "I wish I could train at Karolyi's."
Dumitru's response? "O.K., let's go."
The car dealer packed up his wife, Camelia, who quit her job at a beauty salon, and two daughters and relocated from Florida to Houston. Within a year Dominique had become, at 10, the youngest member ever of the junior national team and was being compared to Comaneci. Fortunately none of it went to her head. "This is a good age," Karolyi says of his latest prot�g�e. "At 13, they don't get psycho yet over the pressure."