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DIANE PUCIN

Prodigies' Fortunes Take a Tumble

October 23, 1998|DIANE PUCIN

Dominique Moceanu had a smile that danced along with the music when the tiny gymnast, so small she seemed able to perform in the palm of your hand, competed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. No one had more fun with her sport in Atlanta. No one seemed more suited to the job of being America's pixie.

Now, two years later, we see Moceanu again. She is grown up, 17 years old, and there is no smile. There is a lawyer at her side and accusations of financial misdeeds made by her against her father.

There are, from Moceanu, who spoke in a monotone, quotes about being forced to keep working hard at gymnastics, even, she said, when she simply wanted to go get some ice cream with her parents. Moceanu talked in anguished tones about how her father, Dumitru, didn't work for two years and lived off of Moceanu's gymnastics earnings.

Seeing this Moceanu, this subdued, unhappy girl who feels it necessary to sue her parents, to obtain a restraining order and to run away from home, brought back memories of another teenage athlete who had been a bright and bubbly presence in her sport and who has ended up miserably unhappy and with a strained relationship with her father.

Remember Jennifer Capriati? Remember the pony-tailed 13-year-old who giggled and called Napoleon that "little dead dude" one moment and then pulverized some bigger, stronger, higher-ranked tennis player at the French Open in the next?

Capriati's father, Stefano, and her mother, Denise, quit jobs when Jennifer, at 13, received millions of dollars in endorsement money before she had played one professional match. By the time Capriati was 16, she was wearing all black, speaking in monosyllables and ending up in a seedy Miami hotel room where drugs were found. The Capriati mug shot ran in all the newspapers. She is 22 now, still making her aimless way on the tennis circuit, still followed around by her still-unemployed father. There are never any smiles.

And now Moceanu.

When these teenage girls are made the breadwinners of the family, how can this be right or good or, in the end, turn out well?

One of Moceanu's statements, made to the Houston Chronicle in the only interview she has given, was that "They [her parents] haven't been working since 1996. Where does their income come from? Me."

After the 1996 Olympics, where Moceanu was a member of the first U.S. gold medal women's team, Dumitru had used money that Moceanu earned on a post-Olympic exhibition tour to open a gym in Houston where the family lived and where Moceanu had trained under Bela Karolyi until the 1996 Games.

Dumitru had been a car salesman in Houston, having moved the family there so that Dominique could train at Karolyi's gym.

Three elite-level gymnastics coaches, none of whom wanted to speak on the record, say that whether it was right or wrong that Dumitru used his daughter's money to open a gym, he had to have worked hard if there was any hope of making this new gym successful.

And Don Peters, coach at SCAT Gymnastics in Huntington Beach, which is a U.S. Olympic training center, said only, "This is not a story about parents and gymnasts. It is a story about a parent and a gymnast. And there are always two sides to every story."

Maybe there are. Dumitru Moceanu has denied his daughter's accusations. One coach pointed out that Moceanu clearly loved gymnastics and loved the spotlight in 1996 and the point seemed to be that no one had forced little Dominique into her life.

The problem here is not whether Moceanu enjoyed gymnastics in 1996. The problem seems to be whether Moceanu still enjoys the sport. And what if she didn't? What if, after Atlanta, she had told her parents, "Hey, I'd like to be a kid now. I'd like to not train so hard. I don't care if everybody forgets my name."?

Meantime, her father has invested her money in a gym. A gym that obviously will do better if Dominique, gold medalist, is around and training every day.

There are some gymnastics people now who are wondering if Dominique is being manipulated by a greedy lawyer or a naive coach, a 26-year-old woman who had been brought from Romania by Dumitru and who, reportedly, has encouraged Dominique to leave her parents. Whoever has influenced whom, Dominique clearly feels let down by her parents, and she is not happy with her life.

It was the same problem Capriati had faced. She was 16, she had burned out on tennis and then she had realized something. No one else in her family worked. There was a mother, a father and a younger brother. Someone had to earn a living. That somebody was Jennifer.

Earlier this year another teenage girl hit the big time. Tara Lipinski, 14, won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. During the year the Lipinski family was harshly criticized by some because Tara's father, Jack, kept his job in Houston while Tara and her mother, Pat, lived in Detroit so Tara could get the best coaching. For keeping his job, and for letting him keep his job, Jack and Pat Lipinski were characterized as selfish and pushy.

So, yes, the parents of young, talented athletes in sports where it is possible to make money have an impossible juggling act. It is nearly always female athletes who are in these sports where they can excel at such a young age and who can seem particularly vulnerable to overbearing parents or agents or coaches.

But how is a teenager to know, when she is 13 or 14 or 15, how she will want to live her life at 16 or 17 or 18? How does she know whether her sport will feel the same when her body has changed, when her mind has changed, when she sees what else in the world is available to her?

How can she make a decision if she feels guilt that her parents have spent tremendous sums of money on her training or if she feels the family will be in trouble without her earnings?

That is where the parent must stop and think. If I make my life dependent on my daughter's life, what kind of life will my daughter have. Not just today, not just tomorrow but next week, next year, next decade?

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