POOR LITTLE MOCEANU IS 17, GOING ON 35

Such a little girl. That was the impression you had when you stood next to Dominique Moceanu at the Atlanta Olympics. Such a little girl. At 14, she came up to the waist of an average-sized man, and with her elfin grin and pigtailed hair, you wanted to scoop her up into your pocket, like Tinkerbell, and walk around with her glowing light.

Such a little girl. And such a false facade. For there is nothing little-girlish about big-time gymnastics. And there is nothing Tinkerbell about Moceanu anymore.

Last week, Moceanu ran away from home. She hired a lawyer, went to court and filed a restraining order on her parents. And so her mother and father had to cease all contact with their now 17-year-old daughter — and stay at least 300 yards away from her — until a meeting Tuesday. What were they accused of? Beating her? Molesting her?

No. Dominique, through her new lawyer — whom she just met last week — accused her parents of blowing her money. She wanted to handle her own affairs. She wanted the court to declare her an adult, and free her from the shackles of mom and dad.

“I kill myself training and going to school and what are (my parents) doing with my money?” Moceanu told a Houston newspaper last week. “They haven’t been working since 1996. Where does their income come from? Me.”

Now, by looking at Dominique Moceanu, you’d think she was a teenager. But by looking at how she lives, you’d think she was 35. She traded in her Mercedes recently for a new convertible Mustang. She has a 1,200-square-foot bedroom, with a hot tub and a 72-inch television. She has reportedly earned several million dollars through gymnastic exhibitions and a clothing line, money which has been put into a trust fund by her parents.

But not long ago, her father, a former gymnast himself, used much if not all of that money to build a 70,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar gym in Houston, the largest of its kind in the United States. It was a place for Dominique — and others — to train for their dreams of Olympic glory.

He insisted it’s something she wanted.

She said he was leaving her “broke.”

This is father and daughter talking, remember.

Who is manipulating whom?

Now, I don’t know what’s truly gone on between Dominique and her parents — who settled their differences late Tuesday by agreeing to ask a judge today to declare Dominique a legal adult. Neither do other media types, including NBC’s
“Dateline,” which did an “exclusive” interview with Dominique on Monday night.

We do know Dominique insisted the lawsuit was her idea, saying, in a statement, “No one is pushing me.” We also know that statement was read by a lawyer.

We do know that her parents, Dumitru and Camelia, tearfully insisted that they loved their daughter, and claimed that someone was manipulating her. We also know her father admitted planning for Dominique to be a world-class gymnast before she was born. She was training by age 3. If that’s not manipulation, what is?

In the end, they have found a legal solution, if not an emotional one. But I suggest we remember these images — Moceanu hiding out at a friend’s house, her parents weeping on television — whenever the next prodigy’s parents insist that they are not “pushing” their kid. When they say, “She really loves what she’s doing.” When they look into the cameras and coo, “Our child is perfectly normal.”

Right. And I’m Elvis’ brother. There is nothing normal about training at 3 years old. There is nothing normal about six hours a day in a gym. There is nothing normal about moving halfway across the country to be with a coach — as the Moceanus did when Dominique turned 10, so she could train with the infamous Bela Karolyi.

There is nothing normal about the pressures of international competitions. There is nothing normal about having agents and lawyers before you have a driver’s license. There is nothing normal about young girls who work out so much and eat so little that they never attain puberty. There is nothing normal about Christy Henrich, a young Olympic gymnastic hopeful who retired at 18 with an eating disorder and died three years later from organ failure.

Normal? We need only look at Jennifer Capriati, who went from swinging tennis rackets to shoplifting goods, or Todd Marinovich, who went from throwing footballs to doing drugs. There are exceptions, but for the most part, behind every teenage superstar is a parent cracking a whip, counting future earnings, and getting a certain rush from being in the limelight.

Perfectly normal?

Greed grinds childhood away

Moceanu’s parents believe all this trouble started when they hired a new coach, who was always asking for more money and filling their daughter with poisonous ideas. Finally, the father fired her. That’s when Dominique — with the help of this coach — ran away.

Then again, under the way her father set up the trust fund, Dominique wouldn’t get sole possession of her earnings until age 35, which seems awfully late, and may be why she sued to handle her own affairs.

“It’s ridiculous,” Dumitru Moceanu said last week. “How can I trust a 17-year-old to manage a big business? She’ll lose everything in two months.”

I don’t know. Sounds to me like they’ve lost everything important already. You can say Dominique owes her parents for their sacrifices. You can say her parents are mooching her earnings. You can say this is all about greed from outsiders who see Dominique as a meal ticket.

But you can’t say it’s childhood.

On “Dateline,” Dominique was asked about the change in her image from the 1996 Olympics.

“The little girl,” she said, “has grown up.”

When was she ever a little girl?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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