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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Next Nadia' Must Vault Injury

DALLAS -- The only thing Dominique Moceanu, Bela Karolyi's latest gymnastics prodigy, was expected to do at the Atlanta Games was show up, perform, and receive her Olympic medal.


But five weeks before the games, the 14-year-old gymnast, described as a blend of Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci, received devastating news.


The pain in her right leg was more than inflammation. It was a 10 centimeter stress fracture. Moceanu reacted like many teenagers might: She cried. And cried some more.


Karolyi, the authoritative and successful coach, refused to let her pity herself. He told her to overcome her injury by taking inspiration from -- who else? -- Retton and Comaneci.


"Mary Lou competed five weeks after knee surgery. Nadia went into the Olympics after very badly spraining her ankle six weeks before," Karolyi said. "I think she [Moceanu] can do it."


Since winning the national gymnastics crown at 13, the media have spent the past year casting Moceanu (pronounced Mo-chee-AH-no) as the darling of the Atlanta Games.


If she can overcome the injury and live up to the billing, there's no telling how high her star could rise.


"People must be realistic," said Comaneci, who like Moceanu was 14 when she set new standards by earning seven perfect 10s and three gold medals at the Montreal Games.


Comaneci has become a friend and mentor to Moceanu, with whom she shares a Romanian heritage and native tongue.


"You have to leave her a little space," Comaneci said. "Let her prove that she's better than you think."


Bart Conner, another former Olympic gold medalist now married to Comaneci, also worries that Americans may expect too much from Moceanu.


"She's not the best in the world, she's one of 10," he said. "She's not the favorite, but the press has put her in this whirlwind."


Moceanu's competition will come from strong Russian, Belarussian and Romanian gymnasts and from her own U.S. teammate, 1992 medal winner Shannon Miller.


"If everyone hits their routines, she won't be the best in the world," Conner said. "But that's the thing about the Olympics -- everyone doesn't hit their routines."


Moceanu became the can't-miss kid of 1996 shortly after her national senior national title in 1995. She was youngest-ever champion and the first person to win the senior crown the year after taking the junior title. She proved she wasn't a fluke five weeks later by finishing fifth at the world championships, best among the Americans. She also won a silver on the balance beam and helped the United States to a team bronze.


The 137 centimeter, 32.4-kilogram Moceanu was dubbed "the next Nadia" because of her strong resemblance to the young Comaneci. The difference, however, is that Comaneci wore a serious expression while performing. Moceanu's sparkling smile recalls Retton, the darling of the 1984 Games.


"I've never really compared myself to either of them," Moceanu said, though she added it "would be fantastic if I could achieve the level of success those two athletes had."


Many feared the mounting publicity would lead to overwhelming pressure. But the home stretch to Atlanta has instead been paved with pain.


First, there was a problem with her left heel that forced her to skip several events. She began compensating for it and wound up hurting her right leg.


Before the national championships in early June, doctors told Moceanu her right tibia was inflamed. Moceanu finished third in the all-around, but she skipped the individual events.


Two days later, she received word of the stress fracture. When Olympic competition in gymnastics begins July 21, Moceanu will have had a little over five weeks to recover. "The old saying is that to make the steel harder, you first have to put it in the flame, then drop it in the cold water," Karolyi said.