Gold medalist Dominique Moceanu spoke about her time as an Olympian and discusses the personal trials she faced off the mat during a special presentation at Lake Community Branch Library June 3.
Having gained international fame in 1996 as the youngest American gymnast in history to win an Olympic Gold Medal, it is no surprise that Dominique Moceanu has a soft spot for kids.
Moceanu was a mere 14-years-old when she struck gold. Now, a 31-year-old mother of two, Moceanu's June 3 appearance at the Lake Community Branch Library took attendees through the 17 years in between, including the seven spent writing her excellent memoir “Off Balance,” with the same grit, charm and spunkiness she showed as an Olympian.
And while that story has proved to be equally compelling to adults and children, Moceanu's focus – both in the writing of “Off Balance” and its subsequent speaking tour – is on the latter audience.
“When I was about 18 people started telling me, 'you should write a book.' But I didn't feel I had enough life experience,” she said.
Finding out on Dec. 2, 2007 that she had a younger sister whom her parents had given up for adoption – at the same time that she herself was 9-months pregnant with her first child and in the midst of final exams at John Carroll University proved to be both a life-altering moment and the impetus for beginning the process of what she now considered an adequately “multi-layered” life story.
The appropriately titled “Off Balance” explores that life schism between a young girl simply searching for her place in the world and a grown woman coming to the realization that an entire life, namely that of her sister, had been kept from her for decades.
“The emotions were overwhelming, and in her photo she was the spitting image of my younger sister, Christina,” Moceanu said. “So there were all these feelings of anger and deceit, but also curiosity.”
Adding to the emotional load, Moceanu's father was, at the time, in the final stages of a losing battle with cancer. When the parental confrontation did come, Moceanu said, she realized the majority of her anger stemmed not from her parents' decision 20 years prior, but their decision to keep the existence of her sister, Jennifer Bricker, a secret.
“My parents were Romanian immigrants, without much money, and Jen was delivered at a charity hospital,” Moceanu said. “And it was a Romanian doctor on staff, ironically, who explained to them the financial burden they would be taking on.”
Brickner was born without legs.
“In Romania, where my parents had grown up, when somebody is born with a disability, they are put into an orphanage,” she said. “So, I think, there was mainly a fear. So, I told my parents 'I still don't appreciate that you didn't tell me, but I understand.'”
Moceanu said she was also thrilled to find out that Jennifer had led a quite extraordinary life herself.
Page 2 of 2 - “It isn't every day that you find out that you have a sister, so when she was telling me how she is involved in gymnastics and volleyball I didn't even think to ask,” Moceanu said. “Then she said, 'and I have no legs' and I was like, 'what did you just say?'”
Brickner's response, Moceanu said, left no doubt in her mind that this was definitely her sister.
“She said, 'yeah, but people forget that within minutes of meeting me,' and I was so proud that there was that Moceanu gene in there somewhere that made her that way,” Moceanu laughed.
She credits her husband, former Ohio State gymnast Michael Canalas, her children, her education, meeting Brickner and the writing of “Off Balance” for giving her the strength to face her past and “break the cycle of abuse” in both her personal and professional life.
Among her other pursuits, the Cleveland resident and former Senior International Elite level gymnast now advocates for fellow gymnasts' rights.
“I would say marriage and family – having these little beings who depend on you – and writing the book did a lot of the healing,” she said.
Those in attendance, like North Canton resident Cindy Humbert and her children, Owen, 12, and Grace, 10, were both surprised and impressed with Moceanu's presentation.
“I just think it's amazing how much time they put in at such a young age and sometimes how much pressure there is,” Humbert said.
Turning the proceedings over to a question and answer session at the close of her presentation, Moceanu showed that she can still fearlessly face and audience, predominantly calling upon the toughest audience of all – the kids.
The questions ranged from the adorably honest (such as “how old are you?” which Moceanu deftly turned into an impromptu math test; “well, I was 14 at the 1996 Olympics, so…”) to the brutally blunt - “do you wish you would have done anything differently?”
“I don't think I would have done anything differently on my end,” Moceanu answered after a pause. “I wish some of the greedy and selfish adults who treated me poorly would not have and that I would have had more who were nurturing and appreciative of the talent I had. But that is something that is beyond my control.”