The prodigy's smile, once so dazzlingly natural, has been showing signs of strain as her date with destiny nears. This is what happens when, a year before the Olympics, you upstage your elders to become, at 13, the youngest gymnast ever to win the U.S. national championship. This is what happens when your coach, the flamboyant Bela Karolyi, haunted by the Olympic failures of his recent past, links you with nearly every great female gymnast of the past 20 years—Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal and Svetlana Boginskaya—all of whom he at one time or another has coached.
This is what happens when you hire an agent and write an autobiography, Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion, at 14. When you're photographed for the cover of Vanity Fair by Annie Liebovitz. When stories about you appear in TIME and PEOPLE, and you're featured in an Olympic ad by Kodak. All of this attention showered onto your 4'6½", 72-pound frame after you have won just one individual medal in world championship competition—five fewer than teammate Shannon Miller—a silver on the balance beam last October in Sabae, Japan.
And finally, harrowingly, this is what happens when a month before the Atlanta Games, a stage you've been pointed toward since birth, you announce—on Today, no less—that you must miss the Olympic trials because of a four-inch stress fracture in your right tibia. The strained smiles became pained smiles that day.
After all the hype and hullabaloo, Moceanu had to petition for a spot on the Olympic team based on her third-place finish in the all-around at the 1996 nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 5-7. Moceanu wasn't alone. Miller, who won the all-around at Knoxville, also petitioned for an Olympic spot, after tendinitis in her left wrist made it difficult for her to perform. Both gymnasts were given places on the U.S. team, and both are expected to be healthy enough to perform well in Atlanta. But for Moceanu the stress fracture represents the first significant injury—the first adversity of any kind—she has had to overcome in an otherwise ascendant career, and it has served to bring her balloon down to earth.
"It's disappointing," Moceanu said during the week of the trials, her smile brave but thin as a thread. "Injuries happen to everybody. In the long run this will just make me tougher."
Moceanu has been on a fast, narrow track ever since—well, go back as far as you like. She practically vaulted out of her prenatal tuck to enter the world, as if life itself were a meet that had started without her. "That's it? That's the pain?" thought her mother, Camelia, when seven-pound, six-ounce Dominique was delivered in a Hollywood hospital. Camelia was 19, and Dominique was her firstborn.
When the proud papa, Dimitry, saw Dominique, he told his wife, "She looks very strong. Looks good for a gymnast."
Camelia smiled. "She's your daughter," she said.
A daughter who would fulfill her father's ambitions. Both Dimitry and Camelia were gymnasts while growing up in Bucharest, Romania, but Dimitry had pursued the sport with greater passion. From the time he was six, he was training four hours a day. When he was 16, however, his parents were given a choice: school full time, or gymnastics full time. Dimitry's parents wanted him to be a doctor, so he was forced to give up the sport he loved. "From that point, I made a commitment that my firstborn, boy or girl, would be a gymnast," Dimitry says. "It was an unfinished dream."
If you think for one moment that America is not still the place to finish unfinished dreams, the Moceanus will set you straight. Dimitry never became a doctor. He completed high school, did his mandatory military service, then went to college for three years before deciding that his future lay outside Romania. He applied for a passport. This was 1979, when the Iron Curtain was still very much intact, and passports out of Romania were difficult to come by. When government officials told Dimitry to come pick his up, his father told him it must be a trap, that he would surely be arrested. Dimitry ignored the warning. Everything turned out to be in order, and he bought a ticket to Austria, telling officials he was going on holiday.