Dominique Moceanu grew up inside the tight-knit, closed-lipped world of elite gymnastics.
The youngest U.S. female gymnast ever to win an Olympic gold medal says she knows what it’s like to be cast aside for breaking ranks and speaking out about problems in the sport.
On Wednesday, in an exclusive interview at her country home south of Cleveland, Moceanu told IndyStar she was ready to speak out again. She called on USA Gymnastics to reform the culture that she believes has led directly to the child sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the organization.
In a passionate interview, Moceanu, now 35 and a mother of two, expressed both outrage and anger before her tone turned dead serious. USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny, who has headed the sport’s national governing body since 2005, she said, should resign “due to dereliction of duty.”
“There’s a history of this alleged negligence on this topic,” she said. “Time and time again, he has been at the forefront of ignoring it.”
Moceanu spoke the same day prosecutors in Michigan filed 22 additional charges against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. When Moceanu heard the stories of women who have accused USA Gymnastics of failing to protect them, she was thrust back to memories of her own experiences.
She was not a victim of sexual abuse, she said, but she felt ostracized by officials of USA Gymnastics after a 2008 interview in which she claimed she was emotionally and psychologically abused by her coaches.
The blow-back cost her friendships and lucrative endorsement deals, Moceanu said. Even more troubling, she believes her treatment may have dissuaded other gymnasts from speaking out about abuse for fear of damaging their own relationships with USA Gymnastics and losing professional and financial opportunities.
Moceanu contends that a culture of intimidation and silence is why Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics is under scrutiny today for its handling of sexual abuse allegations. There would be fewer victims, she argued, if the organization had listened to her and others who had called for help years earlier.
“The image and the reputation was placed above abusive actions. And that’s where the problem lies,” she said. “You cannot put the reputation and the financial dollars ahead of the gymnasts’ well-being and try to cover it up when they come and talk to you.”
USA Gymnastics took “strong exception to that characterization.” In a written statement in response to questions from IndyStar, USA Gymnastics board Vice Chairman Jay Binder and Treasurer Bitsy Kelley defended the organization’s child-protection efforts, and the leadership of Penny and board chairman Paul Parilla.
“For the many people who work within the organization, the safety and well-being of our athletes is the highest priority of USA Gymnastics,” the statement said. “USA Gymnastics has been proactive in forging a strong pathway to a safe sport, and more work has been done on this topic in the last 10 years than ever before, especially through the leadership of Paul Parilla and Steve Penny. We are all working to remove those who violate the privilege of working with young people, and with the help of everyone involved, we can keep our sport safe. We recognize the challenges that currently confront USA Gymnastics, and we are confident that they are being addressed head-on.”
As Moceanu waited for her children to get home from school, she talked to IndyStar about her experiences as an elite gymnast, her treatment after speaking out about former Olympic coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi and her feelings about the sport that made her a household name after the 1996 Olympics.
“I love the sport deeply,” she said. “I have my own young son who is in gymnastics. I want our sport cleaned up from abuse for him and the future generations of all children and young athletes.”
A USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame medal, given to Dominique Moceanu, who won gold with her team in Atlanta, 1996, at her home in Hinkley, Ohio, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. Moceanu is an advocate for gymnasts and seeks reform in the ways the governing body deals with abusive support personnel. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)
Moceanu, who was just 14 when the 1996 U.S. team won America’s first Olympic team gold medal in gymnastics, is the highest profile gymnast to publicly call for the ouster of Penny. But she is not alone.
Moceanu is no stranger to controversy. She followed her 2008 allegations against her coaches with a memoir, “Off Balance,” published in 2012. In the book, Moceanu described Bela Karolyi as an animated publicity hound in front of cameras — and a domineering, psychologically abusive taskmaster behind the scenes.
She wrote that the Karolyi Ranch, the Texas training center for the women’s national team, “holds some of my darkest memories.”
Moceanu said she was “terrified” of the Karolyis, describing them as ignoring her injuries, insulting her repeatedly, scrutinizing what she ate and blaming poor practices on her weight. She said Bela once weighed her in front of teammates, which she called “one of the most humiliating moments of my life.”
The worst part, though, was what she described as beatings from her father, now deceased. She alleged that Bela knew her father revered his status, and she “sensed” that Bela knew he could trigger a beating with a phone call complaining about something, real or not, about Dominique — weight, the food she ate, work ethic.
“I perceived that threat on many occasions,” she wrote.
The Karolyis’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment. They have denied using abusive methods but have acknowledged pushing Moceanu and other gymnasts hard to help them achieve success at the highest levels of the sport. In 2012, the Associated Press quoted Penny as saying the organization “responded with assistance during some of Dominique’s tougher moments, as did the Karolyis and other elite coaches.”
But Moceanu said there was a price to be paid for her tell-all book.
“When I came out, I got no support at all from the governing body,” she said. “In fact, they gave the Karolyis a promotion and I was dismissed.” Martha Karolyi became USA national team coordinator, a position she held until after the 2016 Olympics.
Moceanu said she lost income from endorsements and appearance opportunities, and believes she was under attack behind the scenes.
“I never felt welcome when I went to gymnastics events,” she said. “They completely kept a distance from me from the moment I came out in 2008 with my very first interview.”
She shared an email from that time, in which one prominent Olympic coach expressed disappointment that she was not an ambassador for the sport and wondered how she could “stab this sport in the back.”
“It was easy to target me and label me as, ‘She’s just against us,'” Moceanu recalled. “That’s absolutely not what I am. … If you guys listened then, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Moceanu’s treatment didn’t go unnoticed by others in the gymnastics world.
It was an issue last year when three friends, all former elite gymnasts, confided in Moceanu. The women — Jamie Dantzscher, Jessica Howard and Jeanette Antolin — told her they believed they had been sexually assaulted by Nassar. But they were reluctant to speak up, she said, in part because they had seen how she was treated after making allegations against her prominent coaches.
Moceanu said she insisted they report Nassar.
“It wasn’t easy for them to come forward,” she said, “but they are helping countless victims/survivors come forward, and I am so thankful they can continue their healing process by speaking up.”
The three women are suing USA Gymnastics. Their lawyer, John Manly of California, confirmed Moceanu’s characterization of events. Manly also said some gymnasts were initially intimidated from coming forward because of a wave of public support for Nassar immediately after IndyStar broke the story of allegations against him.
That public outpouring continued until the doctor was criminally charged late last year.
After Manly’s clients appeared this past week on “60 Minutes,” Moceanu said she noticed something different. There was a social media groundswell of support for the victims, from inside and outside of the gymnastics community, as well as a growing unrest about the national governing body’s leadership.
Jessica O’Beirne, host of the insider podcast “GymCastic,” said she’s seen it, too. And particularly the concerns about Penny’s leadership.
“There’s a really strong feeling, for any organization, that if this happened on your watch, you take responsibility and step down,” she said. “There feels like there isn’t a sense of accountability to the membership and to the athletes.”
Moceanu said she hopes the tide is changing. But she’s angry that it’s taken so long, and so many young gymnasts have had to suffer.
An IndyStar investigation last fall revealed more than 360 gymnasts had alleged abuse against coaches and others in the sport over the past 20 years. The investigation also revealed USA Gymnastics executives had failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches. Another installment in the series detailed allegations of sexual abuse against Nassar. More than 80 people have come forward with allegations of abuse against the doctor since the first story.
Nassar, 53, is in jail in Michigan on more than 20 counts of criminal sexual conduct, as well as federal child pornography charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.
USA Gymnastics also is feeling pressure from more than 30 former gymnasts who claim in lawsuits that the organization failed to protect them. The organization has denied those claims and says it reported Nassar to authorities after becoming aware of athlete concerns.
USA Gymnastics has often cited a series of reforms adopted over the years as evidence it has taken a strong stand against abuse. Included in its effort is a list of coaches banned for misconduct, education programs and a review of its policies and practices. USA Gymnastics now requires background checks for coaches, and next month the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which will assume responsibility for handling abuse allegations, will open.
But Moceanu and others say those measures don’t go far enough, and it’s simply taken too long.
“I was talking about abuse in 2008, and there were pioneers before me. Just ask (former national team members) Kathy Johnson Clarke and Jennifer Sey. Nobody did anything,” Moceanu said. “It’s like it was a burden for them to address abuse. So now, they’re in a position where they have to. And I think they are going to be trying, because it’s been a PR nightmare. They absolutely have to do something now. And they have to follow through. And, yes, it’s time. But it was time years ago.”
Sexual abuse in gymnastics is not a new problem, nor is it exclusive to the sport, Moceanu said. The reality is that sexual predators seek out opportunities to be around children. Sexual abuse has been an issue within USA Gymnastics since at least the 1980s, she said. But what angers her is that the organization’s leaders have not taken a strong enough stand to address the problem.
And she puts the onus on Penny, who joined USA Gymnastics in 1999 as its senior vice president. He became president and CEO in April 2005.
“Steve Penny has driven this narrative from the beginning that he didn’t really take the abuse seriously,” she said. “We have emails of other people before us who tried until they were blue in the face to get them to pay attention to this topic.”
Now is the time to listen to athletes, she said, and make changes.
“You’re telling me someone who has been dismissive of these types of abuses should hold the position of the presidency of USA Gymnastics? With our children, I don’t think so,” Moceanu explained. “I think it’s time. We need a change in our culture from the top down. We need to know who knew what, when, and get rid of all the bad characters that didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
The leadership at USA Gymnastics has “a responsibility to their members, to their athletes, and they don’t put the athletes first, yet they claim they do,” she said.
USA Gymnastics has issued numerous statements saying the safety of children is its top priority. In response to Moceanu’s criticisms, USA Gymnastics also provided a statement Friday from Mary Lou Retton, 1984 Olympic all-around champion and past USA Gymnastics Board member:
“Over the years, I have been fortunate to be involved with USA Gymnastics as an athlete, a board member and the mother of four gymnasts. I have seen the dedication, passion and commitment USA Gymnastics has made to its athletes, their well-being and promoting a safe environment where all can thrive, achieve their dreams and grow as individuals,” Retton said. “I am proud of the advancements USA Gymnastics has made over the years to promote athlete safety.”
Walking into Moceanu’s home in an upscale, rural subdivision, there are no immediate signs of her distinguished gymnastics career — nor that of her husband, Dr. Michael Canales, also an accomplished gymnast who competed for Ohio State University from 1996-1999 and was a member of the 1996 NCAA championship team.
Instead, the foyer floor is lined with puzzles their 9-year-old daughter, Carmen, had recently completed. Pictures of the couple, with Carmen and their son, Vincent, 7, line the walls.
Their gymnastics memories, including Moceanu’s gold medal from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, are relegated to a bookcase in the basement. The shelves are filled with photographs, books, trophies and other memorabilia from the couple’s gymnastics careers.
Moceanu said she is able to speak out now because she is no longer dependent on gymnastics for her livelihood. She looks back on her gymnastics career and accomplishments with pride and fondness, for the most part.
“It’s the greatest sport in the world. It’s such a great sport,” she said. “It has right now some problems we need to fix. But just like anything in life, we address them. We are responsible. We deal with them. We fire who needs to be fired and we move forward because we cannot continue the same inaction.”
Moceanu’s Olympic gold medal remains a prized possession.
“I look at it always as a collection of my hard work,” she said.
It’s a reminder of the opportunity and the rewards of hard work that she shares with her children, including Vincent, himself a budding young gymnast. But it’s also a reminder that there are right and wrong ways to achieve one’s dreams.
“I said this is a symbol of excellence and you can get this, too, one day. You can be everything you want to be,” she explained. “If you want to be a gymnast and you want to go to the Olympics, you can do it. But we’re going to be by your side and you’re going to do it healthy.”
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