At age 14, Dominique Moceanu was part of the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to win Olympic gold in 1996, becoming the youngest Olympic gold medalist in U.S history. After years of abuse, she now advocates for the safety of athletes.
I love gymnastics with all my heart. It’s a beautiful sport and has been part of my life as far back as I can remember. It’s that very deep appreciation for the art of gymnastics and the athletes who perform it that drove me to do what was once considered a cardinal sin in my sport: Criticize it in public.
To clarify, it wasn’t the sport of gymnastics itself that I criticized—it was the system and the people running it. About a decade ago, with the U.S. national women’s team at the top of its game, and with the linchpins of gymnastics, Bela and Marta Karolyi—owners of the Texas ranch where the Olympic team trained—basking in public adulation, I chose to speak out about what was wrong. I knew that what I had to say was going to be unpopular with many, including my former coaches and fans of our sport. But I also knew that there were hundreds of young girls dreaming of Olympic gold who deserved to train in safe environments.
Coming up through the system and being personally coached and trained by the Karolyis, I knew first-hand what a scary and unhealthy place the famed Karolyi Ranch could be. I knew what it was like to be grabbed by the scruff of my neck and dragged across the room by Marta. I knew what it was like to be so scared to ask to use the bathroom that I peed in my leotard in practice.
It was in this unhealthy environment that at the age of 14, while training for the 1996 Olympics, I was told to continue practicing through severe, nagging leg pain. As punishment for complaining, I was made to do my routine an increased number of repetitions, performing it over and over until I literally collapsed on the mat. Only then was I was given a closer look, leading to the discovery that I had been training on a fractured leg.
With child athletes living at the ranch for weeks at a time without the supervision of their parents or any adults other than USA Gymnastics (USAG) employees, an atmosphere was created where verbal and emotional abuse became commonplace. I believe this, coupled with fear of retribution for saying anything negative about the Karolyis or their ilk, made abuse possible. It later came out that the ranch was the site where numerous young gymnasts were molested by team doctor Larry Nassar.
In 2006, after a career that included being part of the first U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team to bring home gold and being the youngest gymnast to win a U.S. National Championship, I left the competitive gymnastics world. I was moving on, building a family life, working as a coach to young gymnasts. But I couldn’t stomach the thought of these girls having to go through what I had experienced. With the support of my husband Mike and very few others, I made it a mission to warn people that the gymnastics system under USAG and the Karolyis was not safe.
So I spoke out—first to HBO. For the first time, in an interview in 2008, I didn’t sugar coat anything. I shared my experiences and was honest. It was liberating and challenging at the same time. I was speaking my truth, which was tremendously rewarding, but I was also shunned, blacklisted, and criticized by the community I had been a part of for so long. Hate mail came—from former fans who didn’t want to hear what I had to say and from high-ranking coaches in the system who accused me of stabbing gymnastics in the back.
To USAG, I became a non-person. I stopped receiving financial opportunities and referrals, I was no longer invited to speak at and attend many events, and very few athletes came to my defense or chose to corroborate what I had to say, even though they had seen what I had seen. It hurt, but I had made a decision and I stuck to my guns. I did more interviews. Then, in 2012, I released my memoir, Off Balance, where I went into greater detail about my experiences. The haters continued to hate, but I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, let them stop me. The safety of young gymnasts was too important. The neglectful and inhumane treatment they often received had gone on too long, and I promised I would never stop sharing my story with anyone who would listen.
I was fortunate in that I have never been sexually assaulted by Dr. Nassar, but when the first brave women came forward to tell me about having been horrifically abused by him, it was heartbreaking and gut-wrenching—though not surprising. The total lack of regard for athlete safety and wellbeing, the culture of fear, and the never-question-the-Karolyis-or-their-staff mentality created a perfect storm in which a monster like Nassar could thrive.
After all, he was one of the very few adults who was actually “nice” to us. (We've since learned that this is typical grooming behavior, to provide a false sense of security when so many other adults were being either neglectful or abusive: Be a friendly, sympathetic voice to build trust but not offer any actual help or assistance.) That Nassar could engage in his disgusting behavior unchecked for years, sexually assaulting hundreds of young girls, may sound impossible to most, but not to me. You don’t speak out, you never complain, and nobody is looking out for you. How tragically easy.
Testifying about this warped culture before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year was one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt that after shouting in a vacuum for so long, I was finally being heard and actual change was being made. And with the passing of resulting legislation this year, we can now confidently say that future generations of children participating in sports will be safer. It’s a vindication, but there is still much work to be done. While new standards and legislation are set, it is more imperative than ever that we work to protect athletes and provide safe environments for them. Weeding out the abusers, bad actors, and their enablers is a major part of that.
It hasn’t been easy. But I learned long ago that being a champion of anything isn’t easy. I’m honored to have had a voice, to have been able to help bring about positive change, and I know that better days are ahead. I am hopeful that we can now begin to develop safer practices for all youth sports, including the beautiful sport of gymnastics.
The Dominique Moceanu Gymnastics Center with open its doors in Medina, Ohio, this May.
Mind & Body – Health.com