Needless to say, he missed his flight home. From Austria, Dimitry applied for political asylum in the U.S., which was granted after a Chicago church agreed to sponsor him. He arrived in the Windy City without savings, relatives or any knowledge of English. The church found him a bed, and within two days Dimitry found work at a Greek restaurant called Aphrodite's, where he worked for four months before moving on to manage another eatery.
His brother Costa followed him to the States, settling in California. Camelia, who was then Dimitry's girlfriend, got herself a passport and in late 1980 made her way as far as Greece. Dimitry joined her there, and they got married. Then in February 1981 the Moceanus Hew to New York, bought cross-country bus tickets and resettled in Burbank, Calif., where Costa had lined up a job for Dimitry running a school cafeteria. Camelia learned English while she was pregnant with Dominique, by watching television with a Romanian-English dictionary. On Sept. 30, 1981, her future champion was born. "A good kid," Camelia says today. "So easy."
It was the American dream. After saving enough money, the Moceanus moved back to Chicago and bought Aphrodite's. Dimitry's parents, along with his brother Iani, came to the States in 1982 to help care for Dominique. Dimitry bought a house north of the city, in the attractive suburb of Highland Park. You think gymnasts train hard? Try running a restaurant. Dimitry, Camelia and Iani worked seven days a week until 4 a.m. "If you want to advance, you have to put in the effort," Camelia says matter-of-factly.
Within the broader context of this American dream lay the more personal Moceanu dream. When Dominique was 3½, Dimitry called Karolyi, asking if he should bring his daughter to Houston so she could learn from the best. Too young, Bela told him. They enrolled her in a local club until the Chicago winters persuaded them that they should move south, and in 1988 Dimitry sold the restaurant and moved the family to Temple Terrace, Fla., just outside Tampa. He enrolled Dominique in a club called LaFleur's Gymnastics. Camelia got a job in a beauty salon, and Dimitry opened a used-car lot. But there was never any question in his mind where the family was headed. Three years later 10-year-old Dominique was watching gymnastics on TV and said wistfully, "Oh, if only I could train with Bela," although she had no idea her father had ever talked to Karolyi. That was all Dimitry needed to hear.
He called Karolyi, who told him the date of the next tryout, and on Thanksgiving weekend, 1991, the Moceanus drove to Houston. Karolyi and his wife, Marta, put prospective pupils through a series of exercises testing strength, speed and coordination.
"The most important is the obstacle course," Karolyi says, his eyes lighting up as he describes the scene. "All the girls start together, and they must climb a rope, run across the beam, tumble, things like this. It tests agility, speed, willpower. The one I want is the one who is pulling back the other ones, clawing with her fingers, biting to get in front. She's a fighter."
Dominique passed, though whether she left tooth marks in any competitors is unclear. By Christmas the Moceanus, who by then also had a two-year-old daughter, Christina, had moved to Houston, although Dimitry would spend the next year and a half commuting from Tampa until he sold his car lot there. "They would do anything for me," Dominique says.
It was a family commitment. But Dimitry, who estimates he will have spent more than $200,000 on Dominique's training and travel expenses by the end of this year, was working too hard to spend much time watching his daughter's progress. And Camelia just wasn't cut out to be a hovering stage mother. Dominique's drive came from within. In Dominique's first year with Karolyi she became, at 10, the youngest member ever of the U.S. junior national gymnastics team. She wowed fans with her smile and, upon someone's suggestion, added "1996 Olympics, for sure" to her autograph. Headline writers, unable to resist her heritage and the Karolyi connection, began to ask, THE NEXT NADIA? Karolyi, inveterate promoter that he is, was quick to compare her personality to that of his other gold medalist, Mary Lou Retton.
Moceanu was living up to the hype. She won the U.S. junior national all-around title in 1994, then the senior title on her first try, in '95. Last October, at her first world championships, she was the top U.S. finisher in the all-around, placing fifth; her silver on the beam made her the only U.S. individual medalist. "I could have done better just by being confident and more aggressive," she said later.
But it was exactly what Karolyi had hoped for—a strong showing with room for improvement. No one knows better than he how fragile the perch atop the gymnastics world can be, and how little success in a pre-Olympic year means when the Games roll around. Besides Moceanu, Karolyi has coached three other gymnasts who won the national championship in the year before an Olympics: Dianne Durham in 1983, Kristie Phillips in '87 and Kim Zmeskal in '91. Durham and Phillips failed to make the Olympic team, and Zmeskal, who was the reigning world all-around champion, took home no individual medals from Barcelona. She fell from the balance beam in the opening seconds and never recovered, a failure that still haunts Karolyi. "That experience with Kim in '92 was so conclusive," he says. "The doors to the gym were open to the press and people are asking, 'How many medals will you get?' It was a hardship on Kim. I'll regret it the rest of my life."