Former U.S. Olympian Dominique Moceanu, who at 14 was part of the 1996 gold-medal team, said Tuesday night that USA Gymnastics team coordinator Martha Karolyi once grabbed her by the neck and slammed her face into a phone, and that former coach Bela Karolyi twice berated her about her weight in front of national teammates.
Moceanu, in a telephone interview with The Times, expanded on comments she made on an “HBO Real Sports” report that first aired Tuesday night in which she called for the Karolyis to be removed from their positions with the national team.
But other gymnasts who have been coached by the Karolyis or who were on the 1996 team with Moceanu said they hadn’t seen the abuse Moceanu said she suffered.
“I never, ever objected to hard work,” Moceanu said.
“What I objected to was Martha grabbing me by the neck, shoving my face into the phone and telling me to call my parents when I hurt my neck in practice. I objected to being told to jump onto a scale in front of the 1995 world championship team, of being forced to do 16 uneven bars routines in a row by Martha.
“I was completely embarrassed by Bela in front of the 2000 national training team at camp. He completely belittled me and my weight, singled me out and made me feel very small. It was unfair treatment. Martha’s logic is so false but no one would listen to a 14-year-old. I was never allowed to speak out.”
She failed to make the team and tried a comeback in 2006, but injuries got in the way.
Martha Karolyi, speaking on a conference call Tuesday morning, said, “I feel sad that a gymnast so accomplished as Dominique, being a part of the 1996 Olympic team and being the individual medalist in the 1995 world championships, can remember the harder days during the preparation. I feel sad.”
USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny said, “I have not seen the [HBO] piece yet, so I am not in a position to comment. However, I do want to say that the Karolyis have contributed a great deal to the success of our athletes over the years and continue to do so.”
Later Tuesday, USA Gymnastics spokesman Leslie King said the Karolyis and Penny were unavailable for comment about Moceanu’s other accusations.
Moceanu said she spoke out now only because she was approached by HBO and said she hasn’t spoken to the Karolyis since 2006.
“I have a nonexistent relationship with the Karolyis,” Moceanu said in the phone interview. “I’m more mature now and able to articulate my feelings.”
Kim Zmeskal Burdette, who was coached by Bela Karolyi when she won the 1991 all-around world championship and was a member of the 1992 Olympic team, said she was surprised by Moceanu’s comments.
“I don’t know where she’s coming from,” Zmeskal Burdette said. “From my personal experience, she’s coming from a different planet. It’s a difficult process and there are a lot of pieces to becoming the very best in the world.
“It’s not a walk in the park. Bela was always very clear that if you want these results you put in this kind of work.”
Zmeskal Burdette is a coach now and her 15-year-old student, Chelsea Davis, was one of 12 gymnasts who made it to the final Olympic team selection camp at the Karolyis’ Houston-area ranch. Davis did not make the final cut, however.
The six-woman team was picked Saturday night after a nearly two-month process that included two rounds of national championships June 6-8 in Boston; two rounds of Olympic trials competition June 19-22 in Philadelphia, where all-around winner Shawn Johnson and runner-up Nastia Liukin earned automatic bids; and a final four-day camp at the ranch that ended Saturday.
On the HBO report, Moceanu said: “I think there’s a better way to do it. Bottom line, I’ve had several coaches after the Karolyis. And I know it can be done in a healthier way physically and emotionally.”
Moceanu, 26, who gained fame as part of that 1996 team nicknamed “The Magnificent Seven,” is married to former Ohio State gymnast Michael Canales and is the mother of a 6-month-old daughter. On HBO, she said her sacrifices of living a spartan life, always watching her diet and enduring several injuries including a stress fracture during the 1996 Olympic year were not necessary.
She said the Karolyis showed “very little compassion” when she was injured and told a story of having an aunt smuggle her candy, mints and gum into the practice gym by hiding them in a teddy bear.
In response to poor performances by the U.S. team at the 1999 world championships, USA gymnastics began a system about six months before the 2000 Sydney Olympics in which athletes would come to the Karolyi ranch once a month.
Bela Karolyi was in the forefront of choosing the Sydney team, which won no medals. But since 2001, after Martha Karolyi became the national coordinator, the U.S. has won 13 gold medals at world championships and helped produce the 2004 Olympic all-around gold medalist (Carly Patterson), and the 2007 world championship gold medalist (Johnson) and the world championship gold-medal team.
Dominique Dawes, who was on the 1996 Olympic team with Moceanu and who was also on the 2000 team, said Moceanu had never talked about her unhappiness.
“Did I have any negative experiences,” Dawes said. “Sure. Was it easy? No. But I always had a choice. No one was putting a gun to my head.”
Dawes was personally coached by Kelli Hill but also participated in the Karolyi ranch experiences in 2000.
“The thing is, the kids understand the Karolyis,” Dawes said. “No. 1, we had a choice. No. 2, we understood the political benefits to being a Karolyi athlete. The Karolyis have clout both at the national and international level.”
Moceanu says she feels USA Gymnastics doesn’t need the Karolyis any more.
“There are so many good coaches in the U.S. that could get the same results,” she told The Times. “They are using an old way of overtraining. The results might be commendable, but it’s not right.”