book reviews

Repost: My review of Off Balance by Dominique Moceanu…

And finally, a repost of my review of Olympic gold medalist gymnast Dominique Moceanu’s book, Off Balance, which I read and reviewed in June 2012. This review is posted as/is, so Dominique is no longer 30.

I will never forget the summer Olympics of 1996.  They were held in Atlanta, Georgia, a city I would eventually briefly call home.  Though Atlanta is now not so far from home, back in 1996, it was halfway around the world from where I was.  At that time, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia.  The United States Embassy had graciously allowed Peace Corps Volunteers to use its services, which included a laundry, movie theater, and restaurant.  The restaurant got the Armed Forces Network (AFN), which aired American television shows and, of course, the Olympic Games! 

The 1996 Games were very special, especially for the women’s gymnastics team, which won team gold and consisted of seven amazing young ladies.  One young lady on the 1996 women’s gymnastics team at the Olympics was Dominique Moceanu, author of the brand new memoir, Off Balance: A Memoir.  This book, which comes on the market just in time for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, was also written by Paul and Teri Williams.  

Dominique Moceanu’s electrifying floor routine in Atlanta, Georgia.

Who is Dominique Moceanu?

Dominique Moceanu had already made a lot of headlines before the Games.  At 14, she was the youngest and tiniest member of the women’s gymnastics team.  Born to immigrant Romanian parents, in many ways Moceanu bore a striking resemblance to another famous Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci.  Besides looking a lot like Nadia, Moceanu had the same famous coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, and the same athletic power, grace, and charisma.  And just like Nadia at 14 years old, 14 year old Dominique Moceanu won gold for her country at the Olympics.  She will always be the youngest American gymnast to win gold, since the eligibiity rules changed after 1996 and now female gymnasts must be at least 15 years old to compete.

Dominique Moceanu was born about a year after her parents’ wedding in 1980 and she was very impressive from the start.  At six months old, her parents had her hang by her hands from a clothesline.  Even as a baby, her grip was amazing and somehow her parents knew they had a gymnast on their hands.

Being an amazing gymnast has its price, however.  Moceanu explains that since her parents were old school Romanians, she suffered a bit trying to adjust to American culture.  Her parents were very poor and came from a country where family honor is a very important concept.  Consequently, Moceanu worked very hard as she grew up and had little control or say over her own life.  Her late father, Dmitru Moceanu, was very ambitious for his daughter and, along with the Karolyis, forced her to train endlessly.  He was very controlling and not above using violence to get what he wanted. 

At age ten, Moceanu began working with the Bela and Marta Karolyi, whose training methods were effective, but brutal.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Dominque as she described a childhood spent in a gym full of old equipment and ever changing coaches.  The truth was, the Karolyis didn’t actually do most of the coaching themselves.  They hired and fired different people at the drop of a hat.  

Behind Dominique’s powerful tumbling and confident smile, there was a young lady who was truly suffering for her sport.  Bela and Marta Karolyi, though famous and charismatic on camera, were exceedingly demanding and critical coaches who forced Dominique to starve herself as she put her growing body through punishing and grueling practices.  When Dominique became famous and started earning money, her father squandered it on a huge gym, forcing Moceanu to go to court to become emancipated from her parents at age 17. 

In 2007, Moceanu learned that her parents had kept a secret from her and her younger sister, Christina.  They had given up another daughter for adoption.  Dominique learned of her long lost sister, Jennifer Bricker, when Bricker sent her a letter, pictures, and adoption documents.  Besides the fact that Dominique did not know that she had a sister, she also didn’t know that her sister was born without legs and that was the main reason her parents had given her up.  Moceanu found out about her sister as she was about to give birth to her first child and was trying to prepare for final exams in college.

Now just 30 years old, Moceanu is a married mother of two, an Olympic champion, a college graduate, and getting to know the sister her parents gave away.  To top it all off, her father, with whom she’d always had a complicated relationship, died a few years ago of a rare eye cancer. 

My thoughts

Yes, Dominique Moceanu has seen, done, and lived a lot in her thirty years.  Ordinarily, I would say she was too young to write her life story, but there’s plenty to read about in Off Balance.  This book is written as if Dominque were sitting nearby, having a chat with a friend.  In a casual, conversational style, Moceanu, with help from her ghost writers, retells her life story.  Curiously enough, she doesn’t start at the beginning.  The book begins with Moceanu’s discovery that she had a long lost sister… one born without legs, no less!  From there, Dominique explains how her parents met and wed in an arranged marriage and left Romania for the United States, determined to make a better life and eventually became a world class and world famous gymnastics family.

I didn’t really care too much for the initial jumping around this book did, but I’m kind of old school when it comes to reading life stories.  I like to start at the beginning.  But I also understand that a lot of people will be buying this book because of the recent buzz surrounding Moceanu’s legless sister.  Indeed, I didn’t even know Off Balance existed until I saw a news clip about Dominque and Jennifer Bricker finally meeting each other.  I would have read the book anyway, since I love memoirs about famous gymnasts, but I have to admit this astonishing development in Moceanu’s family life is very compelling.     

I was very touched by how accepting Moceanu and her younger sister, Christina, were toward Jennifer Bricker.  Indeed, they all seem to get along as if they had spent their whole lives together.  And Bricker is truly amazing in her own right; she seems to have inherited the amazing athletic genes that helped make Dominque Moceanu a champion.  Despite not having legs, Jennifer Bricker is able to be a gymnast herself and now works as an aerialist.

Aside from all of her family dramas, Moceanu also writes about the politics and corruption she encountered in the elite gymnastics community.  And she includes the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband, podiatrist and gymnast Dr. Michael Canales.

Moceanu includes plenty of color photos.  I read this book on an iPad, so the photos were easy to see.  The book was also a very quick and satisfying read.  I finished it in less than 24 hours.

Overall

Dominique Moceanu may only be 30, but she’s done a lot of living.  I enjoyed reading Off Balance and would recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys memoirs, particularly about sports figures.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard
book reviews

A review of Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, by John Barr and Dan Murphy

I just finished my fourth book about former doctor turned sex pest, Larry Nassar. This one, entitled Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, was written by John Barr and Dan Murphy, two very experienced reporters who have both worked for ESPN. ESPN, for my non-American readers, is a very well respected and long established all sports cable television channel. Not surprisingly, this book about Larry Nassar’s crimes is the best researched of the four I’ve written so far. It’s also extremely well-written.

Since this is my fourth review about this topic, I’m not going to go too much into detail what Larry Nassar did. By now, we all know that he sexually molested hundreds of women under the guise of providing them “medical treatment”. He was labeled a genius– doctor to gymnastic stars– and his office was littered with photos and autographs of famous young women athletes he’d “helped” with his controversial pelvic floor treatments. His victims included people such as Simon Biles, and every single one of the “Fierce Five” gymnastics team that competed at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012. But they also included people were comparative “nobodies”, like Rachael Denhollander, who was interviewed extensively for this book, as well as past stars like Tasha Schwikert and Jamie Dantzscher, and even a very young friend of Nassar’s family, Kyle Stephens, who was not an athlete.

Barr and Murphy conducted many interviews to gather material for this book, but they really concentrated on Rachael Denhollander’s and Jamie Dantzscher’s. I have already read and reviewed Denhollander’s own book, What is A Girl Worth?, also an excellent read. But what made Start by Believing even better than Denhollander’s book was that the journalists also shared Jamie Dantzscher’s story. I remembered watching Dantzscher, strangely enough, when she was on an ESPN gymnastics special back in 1997. I remember I was fresh from Armenia, staying at my eldest sister’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I turned on the TV to see the most famous gymnasts of the day flipping and tumbling to rock music.

The first time I remember ever seeing 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher…

I was too busy with graduate school during the 2000 Sydney Olympics to watch Dantzscher go for the gold. I later read that the women’s gymnastics team had a rather poor showing there. China was awarded the bronze medal ahead of them, but it later came out that the Chinese team had broken some rules which stripped them of their team medal for women’s gymnastics. The U.S. team was later awarded the bronze medal ten years after the fact. I also didn’t know that Jamie Dantzscher had been forced out of the competition. Her very large family had scrimped and saved to come to Australia to see her perform, all for naught. As they were enjoying their time Down Under, Jamie’s father, John, and sister, Jennifer, were broadsided by a bus while running an errand. Jennifer suffered cuts and bruises, but John Dantzscher was badly hurt to the point at which it was feared he would die. He spent weeks in a Sydney hospital before he could go back to California to relearn everything that made him independent. Years later, Jamie’s sister, Jennifer, died from asthma related causes.

It turns out Jamie Dantzscher is a Latter-day Saint. However, she apparently uses a lot of foul language and is unusually outspoken. During the 2000 Olympics, she came under fire for criticizing famed women’s gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, calling him a “puppeteer”. She was also one of the very first women to take legal action against Larry Nassar, although she did so anonymously at first. Barr and Murphy did a great job of sharing Jamie Dantzscher’s brave story. I came away from their book with more respect and admiration for Jamie than I previously had.

The authors also share Rachael Denhollander’s story, which, because I had already read her book, felt a little like a rerun. However, had I not read What is a Girl Worth?, I think I would have really appreciated how Barr and Murphy explained her situation. To a lesser extent, the authors share the stories of a wide array of gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nassar, and they explain how Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he had. Larry Nassar is a world class manipulator who used every trick in the book to get people to trust him and believe in what he was doing, even when the abuse was obvious and had been reported for years before his career fell into a shambles and he lost the right to freedom.

Maybe I should be angry and horrified reading books about Larry Nassar’s sex crimes, but when I read Start By Believing, I felt an odd sense of power and pride for the victims who became victors. This book is about brave women who came forward to bring a monster to justice, many of whom eventually became friends in the process. I often like to say that something good comes out of almost every situation. Despite Larry Nassar’s despicable acts of abuse against women, many of the women involved in this case have formed a kind of sisterhood. And they all got to watch their abuser FINALLY meet justice. Frankly, as someone who has also been repeatedly screwed over and abused by other people, I found it an unusually empowering and inspiring read.

I also liked the fact that Barr and Murphy had clearly read a lot of other, earlier books about the abuses suffered in gymnastics. They specifically mention Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, Chalked Up, by Jennifer Sey, and Off Balance, by Dominique Moceanu. I have read all three of these books, and though Sey and Moceanu were not victimized by Larry Nassar, they were both elite gymnasts who suffered abuse from their coaches. Joan Ryan was a sports reporter in San Francisco before her book about the celebrated abuses in women’s gymnastics and figure skating exploded in 1995. All three books are outstanding, and well worth reading. I especially enjoyed the life stories, because even when they are about a common topic, like abuse in gymnastics, there are interesting side stories. Dominique Moceanu, for instance, is the daughter of Romanian immigrants who had escaped Nicholai Ceausescu’s horrifying regime. Jennifer Sey is about my age, and I can relate to what it was like for her to grow up in the 70s and 80s, when parents were a hell of a lot less hands on and obsessed with safety as they are now.

And finally, Barr and Murphy include several interesting color photos. The one that made me stop and pause the longest was the picture of several tiny gymnasts pushing former coach, John Geddert, in his blue Corvette as part of their athletic training. Geddert was well known for his aggressive, abusive tactics to get his women to win, but I had no idea that he’d employed making them push him in his very expensive sports car. Talk about an asshole!

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading about Larry Nassar’s crimes, I think I would put Start By Believing at the top of the required reading list. In fact, I think it’s my favorite of the four books I’ve read so far, followed closely by Rachael Denhollander’s book, because Start By Believing is so comprehensive, extremely professionally written, yet very engaging, and it’s so well-researched. Highly recommended with five stars!

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon from sales made through my site.

Standard