Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Review: Off Balance by Dominique Moceanu with Paul & Teri Williams

If you've been watching the Olympics these past weeks on NBC, you've probably seen a lot of reference to the Magnificent Seven in light of the Women's Gold Medal win in gymnastics. The team that won this year is only the second women's US gymnastics team to win the gold medal so there's been a lot of fond reminiscing of the first time in Atlanta 1996.

I remember this team as well, perhaps more than any other year, and the famous vault of Kerri Strug that propelled the team to gold. (so goes the narrative, the reality is that they won without that vault, but whatevs) It was such an exciting event and story. And I remember little Dominique Moceanu who fell on her two vaults, but had a fun energetic floor routine. So when this book got pitched to me for review I accepted.

I pulled it off the shelf to read this week and I was surprised by just how compelling it was, I tore through it in a day. It's a behind the scenes glimpse of gymnastics, yes, but it's even more so a story of how the sport of gymnastics played a defining and shaping role in Dominique's life for better or worse. It also exposes some of the troubling corruption in the US Gymnastics system.

First of all, I want to say that this book...is marketed as a book about how Dominique found out as an adult that her parents had a daughter in between her (the oldest) and her youngest sister that they had given up for adoption. Her middle sister, Jennifer, was born without legs and her parents felt they could not afford the medical care she'd need so they gave her up for adoption. As an adult, Jennifer reached out to Dominique whom she'd always admired watching compete on TV and the two strike up a relationship. This is a verrrrry thin thread that ties the book together. In fact, I feel like it would have made more sense to simply include a chapter about Jennifer at the end rather than have a chapter about her inserted every few chapters. It's an amazing story, but I was really more interested in Dominique's story as it turns out.

Dominique's parents came to the States just after they married and shortly before they were expecting her. They didn't have a lot of money, and her father was an angry, controlling, and abusive man. But they came from Romania, land of Nadia Comaneci, so when Dominique first showed promise as a gymnast, they embraced it fully and dedicated a great deal of time and money to get her trained. At first gymnastics was something she loved...she was really good at it and felt free. Since she already faced so much difficulty at school for being an outsider because of her parents and being the child of immigrants, gymnastics became the thing she loved best, the place she excelled, and thrived. But as she continued to grow better and better, her parents were determined to have her coached by Bela Karolyi and they uproot their family to move closer to his training gym.

It's heartbreaking to read as gymnastics changes from something she loves and where she thrives to the source of a lot of misery in her life. The Karolyis are cruel and demanding, with no respect or genuine concern for their gymnasts. Their system was unforgiving and harsh and Dominique suffers under the weight of an abusive relationship with both her father and coach. Let me tell you...I started to LOATHE the Karolyis and I don't think I can stand to see them on the television anymore, it sort of sickens me that they are so championed in the Olympics coverage when they are really sort of awful people. I also don't think this is an isolated case, but they still have a really huge grip on US Gymnastics so people can't really speak freely about them, but you can read between the lines in some interviews. Dominique explains a lot of this in the book and it's super sad but also eye opening since I didn't really know anything about any of this!

After the 1996 Olympics, the Karolyis dump Dominique and the rest of the book details the escalating difficulties with her family, her attempts to return to gymnastics, and the emancipation from her parents at age 17!

It's an inspiring story in some ways, like her sister is super inspiring (and the book makes it pretty clear that Jennifer's adoptive family was a much better environment than Dominique's homelife) and Dominque's story of overcoming the abuse in her life is as well. And it's also interesting. She talks about her attempts to return to competitive gymnastics at age 24 and how she could technically do many of the things the younger girls could do but due to some serious politics she was barred from competing. In light of the 37 year old gymnast we watched at this Olympics, I think it's clear that she's right...elite gymnastics doesn't have to be only for young prepubescent girls as we're led to believe.

On my review of Gold Medal Summer yesterday, Kathy mentioned that the book made her think of all the things athletes sacrifice for their sports. That holds true in this memoir as well but adds this whole creepy and sad layer of the things parents are willing to do to their children in the name of the sport.

The book isn't perfect..I felt like the end was rushed and disjointed. As I mentioned before, I don't think Jennifer's story needed to be interspersed throughout the book but could have been added on to the end. Dominique's story is compelling, heartbreaking, and fascinating enough on its own. Even so, it's a really compulsively readable memoir, perfect for anyone who wants an inside glance at US gymnastics.

Rating: 4.5/5
Source of Book: Received from publisher for review
Publisher: Touchstone (Simone and Schuster)

Here's Dominique's beam routine from 1996. Look at how little she is!!!


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