Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Off Balance: A Memoir by Dominique Moceanu

Off Balance: A Memoir by Dominique Moceanu with Paul Williams and Teri Williams
Release Date:
June 12, 2012
Publisher: Touchstone
Source: Library


An unflinchingly honest memoir from Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu that reveals the often dark underbelly of Olympic gymnastics as only an insider can—and the secrets she learned about the past that nearly tore apart her family.At fourteen years old, Dominique Moceanu was the youngest member of the 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastic team, the first and only American women’s team to take gold at the Olympics. Her pixie-like appearance, passion for the sport, and ferocious competitive drive quickly earned her the status of media darling. But behind the fame, the flawless floor routines, and the million-dollar smile, her life was a series of challenges and hardships.

From her stubborn father and long-suffering mother, to her acclaimed Svengali-like coach, Bela Karolyi, Off Balance reveals how each of the dominating characters contributed to Moceanu’s rise to the top. Here, Moceanu finally shares the haunting stories of competition, her years of hiding injuries and pain out of fear of retribution from her coaches, and how she hit rock bottom after being publicly scorned by her father.

But medals, murder plots, drugs, and daring escapes aside (all of which figure into Moceanu’s incredible journey), the most unique aspect of her life is the family secret that Moceanu discovers, opening a new and unexpected chapter in her adult life, just as she reclaims the love of the sport that had defined so much of her life.

A multilayered memoir that transcends the world of gymnastics and sport, Off Balance will touch anyone who has ever dared to dream of a better life. (courtesy of Goodreads)


I generally limit my reviews to young adult fiction, but with the Olympics underway and the most interesting parts of this book focusing on Dominique's teenage years, I'm making an exception. I've been a huge gymnastics fan my entire life. Unfortunately, my future as an Olympian was cut short at a mere 3 years of age by the development of a healthy fear of "what might hurt Alison" (plus having the flexibility of a dry twig).  So I lived vicariously through the Magnificent Seven in 1996.

Off Balance is a must read for any gymnastics fan and especially for anyone who loved the Magnificent Seven's gold medal win in Atlanta. I enjoyed watching Dominique hop onto the national stage at 13 and then leap into the world's hearts at 14 (although I was always irritated that she stole the limelight from my beloved Shannon Miller). Dominique is only a week younger than me and her life seemed so much fuller and charmed than mine. It was definitely fuller, but charmed it was not.

Dominique tells in great detail her years of suffering under her brutish, abusive father and the Karolyis, who made her father seem gentle. In fact, she is so negative towards the Karolyis that I would think her story to be exaggerated if we hadn't all heard these same dark rumors from other gymnasts. Nothing Dominique could ever do was good enough for Bela and Marta. She didn't work hard enough, she made mistakes, she was weak. They treated her even worse than others, because her parents would never stand up to the Karolyis. And according to Dominique, they weren't even her primary coaches. They hired other coaches to do the day to day work and then fired them before the Olympics so they could get the glory for being a champion's coach.

If you're looking for gossip about the other team members of the Magnificent Seven, you won't find it here. She talks briefly about the other members, but doesn't have any good stories. She did seem to particularly like Jaycee Phelps, Amanda Borden, and Kerri Strug. She was careful not to say anything bad about anyone. Too bad. I wanted stories. I was surprised to realize how isolated she was from the other members of the Olympic team. The Karolyis kept a tight rein on Dominique and Kerri. Plus, being four or more years younger than the rest of the team set her apart.

While I was disappointed by the lack of gymnast gossip, the book vividly described her training and her experience at the Olympics. What seemed like a magical time to the viewers was often terrifying to Dominique who knew that - gold medal or not - her father and the Karolyis would only see the slight imperfections of her performance. I cringed through large parts of the book, because Dominique's childhood was so nightmarish.

With all the difficulties of her life, this book could have been full of self-pity, but it wasn't. It was a reflection of a young woman who has come to terms with her past and moved on. She is able to successfully separate her love of gymnastics from the people who made it difficult. She has managed to come to peace with her father but still realizing that his actions were horribly wrong. The Karolyis and USA Gymnastics are the only continued sources of bitterness for Dominique that I noticed.

A good portion of the book deals with Dominique's recent discovery that she has a sister she never knew about. When she was 6 her mother gave birth to a baby with no legs. Unable to care for the little girl, Dominique's parents gave her up for adoption. Dominique tells the story of her sister Jennifer with glowing adulation. While Jennifer seems like a fabulous girl who has thrived despite her physical challenges, I really didn't care. I wanted to know more about Dominique. I did think it interesting that Dominique realized that Jennifer had a much happier childhood than she did by being raised in a different family.

I highly recommend Off Balance for gymnastics fans. It could have used a bit more gossip and a bit less information about Dominique's new-found gossip, but it was still full of inside gymnastics info and gave me a clear look at the difficult life of a very successful girl.

Rating: 3.5 / 5


  1. I remember Dominique somewhat from that time period, but I guess I'm more attached to Mary Lou Retton (and Nadia). Still, I've been following women's gymnastics since I was a little girl, so a memoir like this would be up my alley.

    Very nice review. :)

  2. I was a teen during the '96 Olympics and a particular fan of Moceanu so I'll have to look for this biography. I always wondered about how the coaches treated the gymnasts especially with Kerri Strug competing while injured. How much of that was her decision and how much was it pressure from the Karolyis?

    I feel bad for Jordan Wieber at this year's Olympics. She's probably been through a lot of difficulties too only to lose out on being able to compete in her main event.

    Great review! Have you read Winning Balance by Shawn Johnson? I have a feeling that book would have a vastly different tone.

  3. Wow--that's really hard! Poor girl, having to go through all that, even though she did so fantastic. I can't even imagine not having support, especially with something that's so demanding both mentally and physically.

  4. I can't even imagine what the Karolyis put their gymnasts through - especially at their giant training camp/compound. I have no doubt I would crumble under that kind of pressure and negativity, so it makes it all the more impressive I think when these girls manage to thrive:)

  5. Great review! I wanted TO BE Dominique when I was a younger, so even though I don't typically read memoirs, I'll be checking this one out.

    Thanks, Alison!

  6. I'm not much in to memoirs, but this gymnast always intrigued me. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Great review...it's amazing how much she has gone through in her short life so far....

  8. Haha you're too cute, Alison! My Olympian days were cut short due to my not having the attention span to play a sport for more than a year. :P I've seriously tried them all haha. Anyway, this sounds like a great book! I'm always fascinated by people's life stories and struggles to get where they are today.

  9. I don't have flexibility or balance at all and like to live vicariously through gymnastics and figure skating while watching the Olympics. I can't imagine the grueling preparations they go through just to make it to the games. I remember her, but I think I was more of a Kerri Strug fan.

  10. The life of a someone doing competitive sports like this must be super hard! Training training and training! You must bring your body on the limit... Although I like watching these kids I also always feel kind of sad for them!
    This is a great review and comes in the perfect time :))

  11. Oh, I feel so bad for her. Great review, I'll have to look into this book. Thank you for sharing.

  12. You know, I just heard of this book today. I was watching the All around finals and I wondered what had happened with the girls from Atlanta - I was watching that live when it happened and yeah, Shannon Miller was awesome. I even remember seeing her In Barcelona 92.

    Like you, I wish there was more gymnastics gossip but I can understand why there isn't, and I agree with you that I wouldn't really care about all the stuff with her sister.

    Otherwise the book sounds like an interesting memoir :D

    Thanks for this review.

  13. It sounds like the perfect time to read this book. I'm not normally a huge gymnastics fan, but you can't help getting wrapped up in it all during the Olympics. I definitely think if I picked this one up I'd enjoy it.


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