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Moceanu’s Life Is Smoothing Out : Gymnastics: She is disappointed she missed U.S. championships, but 17-year-old is healing wounds with family.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dominique Moceanu looked like any other 17-year-old at the Sacramento airport Sunday, slouched in her seat wearing jeans and sneakers.

That winsome face from the 1996 Olympics is fuller and her tiny frame has grown by seven inches, but most notably of all, Moceanu’s brown eyes are wary now.

“I’m her,” she said simply, when someone stopped to ask.

Moceanu didn’t compete in the U.S. Gymnastics Championships this week because of surgery Aug. 11 to treat a malformation of her right knee, instead providing commentary on the competition for an NBC Olympic Web site.

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But after a tumultuous year in which she sued to be declared an adult at 17 to wrest control of her life and finances from her parents and secured a restraining order against her father, her life has settled--and her family has moved toward reconciliation.

“Everything’s fine now, it’s a lot better,” said Moceanu, who is living in Colorado Springs, Colo., as she rehabilitates her knee with a plan to compete in the 2000 Games, four years after helping the U.S. win the team gold medal in Atlanta at only 14.

“My life is my life, business and personal,” Moceanu said. “I keep in touch and love my mom and my sister and family.”

She even has reestablished some contact with her father, Dumitru, after reaching a financial settlement with her parents in April that lifted the protective order she secured against him because she believed he was a threat to her as well as her coach and friends.

“Yeah, I do [have contact with him],” Moceanu said. “I’m not going to go into detail right now, it’s just a lot of things happened that nobody’s ever going to understand. It’s hard to explain.

“It’s fine now. A lot of the media blew it out of proportion, and I didn’t want to talk to them about it. That [press coverage] kind of got me upset, because nobody ever knew the real story of what was going on.

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“My life is my personal life. Unfortunately, it’s in the public eye.”

She was not on stage at these national championships, watching as Kristen Maloney and Vanessa Atler dominated a field that did not have Olympic veterans Moceanu, Amy Chow or Kim Zmeskal--all out because of injuries and all hoping to make comebacks for Sydney.

“It was hard. I wanted to be out there,” Moceanu said. “Hopefully I’ll be back soon.”

Her recovery is expected to take three months and then comes training for competition.

“It will be next year sometime, whenever I’m ready,” she said. “I just have to rehab and strengthen and condition myself, and get my ability back.”

She already has done that once, making a splash last year by winning the all-around gold at the Goodwill Games despite a more mature build and a post-Olympic slump.

She was third at nationals last year behind Maloney and Atler, only months before running away from her family’s Houston home in October and filing a lawsuit to gain financial independence because she believed her father had squandered her earnings.

Moceanu was legally declared an adult in a Texas courtroom last October.

This Sept. 30, she becomes one again, on her 18th birthday.

She’ll be going to school and has enrolled in a couple of classes at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“UCCS,” she said. “I’m starting tomorrow.”

The longer road leads to Australia and the Olympics.

“It would mean a lot. It’s really neat to go to one, much less two,” she said. “It’d be amazing, because I’m older and I’ve been through a lot more, experienced a lot more.”

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A plane to take her to Colorado waited.

“I’m going home,” she said.

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