Bela Karolyi is anxious. His mustache is twitching, his head bobbing, his body shimmying. Across the floor, the gymnast who is the object of all this urgent motion stands perfectly still. Even the ribbon in her ponytail seems frozen in place. Finally Dominique Moceanu arches all of her 53 inches and 70 pounds and charges down the runway. A dozen previous practice vaults have all been flawed; she lacked thrust on takeoff or failed to hold her landing. But this evening of practice does make perfect, and Bela's succinct narrative confirms her achievement. "Yes. Yesss. YESSS!" The next night, she vaults even better, landing a near-perfect 9.9 at the U.S. national team trials. The leap propels her into first place--and just as important, into a smothering bearhug from her famed coach, whose arms have trained and embraced the world's greatest gymnasts.
For Dominique, and Bela, it has been a season of hugs. Last month, at the age of 13, Moceanu made a stunning national-championship de-but--vaulting, tumbling and bouncing her way to the all-round gold medal. In becoming the youngest American champion in history, she defeated two 18-year-old stars, Shannon Miller, a two-time world champion, and Dominique Dawes, who last year had swept all five gold medals at the same event. As a result, next week Moceanu will celebrate her 14th birthday at center stage of the world championships in Japan.
Before she is 15, Dominique may command the greatest sports stage of all. Among the thousands of athletes who will parade into Atlanta's new Olympic Stadium next summer, no one has a better shot at the kind of glory that only an Olympics can render. Women's gymnastics have turned flexible little girls into figures of international renown. They're known to legions of television viewers by their first names. Nadia. Mary Lou. And now perhaps Dominique. "Everyone's making such a big deal," says Dominique. "But I'm trying not to pay any attention."
If there is a Gymnastics Gene, Dominique has it. She's the Hollywood-born daughter of two former Romanian gymnasts. And she bears a striking resemblance to Karolyi's greatest protegee, Nadia Comaneci. In 1976, at 14, Nadia stole the show at the Montreal Olympics with a three-gold-medal performance. When Moceanu saw Nadia on tape for the first time a few years ago, she thought, "Wow! We do look so much alike." It is a comparison she encourages by wearing, like Nadia, a ponytail bound by a ribbon. (Nadia's was red and white, Dominique's a patriotic red, white and blue.) "The look, the style is frighteningly similar," says Karolyi.
The similarities, though, don't extend to performing style. Comaneci was the smoldering Romanian princess--so intense, self-contained and mysterious that she was almost unaware of the crowd. "I grew up in a different system and was taught to keep everything inside," says Comaneci, who at times advises Dominique. "She takes all her feelings outside. That's the American way." In that, Dominique resembles another of Karolyi's great stars, Mary Lou Retton. "We need to see the human emotion on the floor, not just the stunts," he says. Dominique's performances are very playful-"she's like a little bird on a wire, all the time fluttering and chirping and always playing to the crowd," says the coach. Dominique says that sometimes she has to remind herself to stop smiling in order to concentrate on her routines.
She has been performing since infancy, when her parents used to test her grip by hanging her from a clothesline. They were so impressed by her innate ability that when she was 3 years old, they phoned fellow expatriate Karolyi in Houston and said they were ready to move there if he would take Dominique on. "I told them, 'Let her grow up a little first. Don't make any major family sacrifice'." The Moceanus could hear the unspoken "yet." When she was 9, the coach relented and the Moceanus were Texas-bound. Less than a year later, she became the youngest gymnast ever to make the U.S. Junior National Team. Comaneci didn't know who Dominique was when she first watched the 10-year-old compete. "Her gymnastics weren't very good, but there was something sparkling in her face," says Nadia. "She was jumping and smiling and she had the biggest eyes."
Dominique's ascent in just one season from junior champion to national champion has derailed Karolyi's plan "to sneak up from behind" in the Olympic year. Bela hoped Dominique might finish a solid second or third at the nationals, thus reining in expectations for his young star. "I wanted to win anyway," she says. "So I went out and did my very best." Still, Karolyi, who is given to hyperbole and major enthusiasms, is reluctant to hype Dominique's Olympic prospects. He has coached the last three American women champions in the pre-Olympic year; two didn't even make the U.S. Olympic team, and the third, Kim Zmeskal, the world champion and gold-medal favorite in Barcelona, failed to win any individual medals. "I don't want to create an early sensation," Karolyi says. "I've seen the ones who peaked too early or got in a situation where pressure turned into a destructive element."
Pressure isn't Dominique's only foe. For all her flair, she doesn't have the refined technique of Miller, who has already won 13 medals in Olympic and world competition, more than any American gymnast in history. Nor has she yet demonstrated the consistency of a champion. After winning the all-round title, she failed to win any gold medals the next day in the four individual events and fell in both her balance-beam and her uneven-bars routines. Then there's the other 14-year-old, Alexandra Marinescu, the budding star on the world-champion Romanian team. Marinescu, the reigning European junior champion, has won a couple of international meets this summer and is being hailed at home as "the next Nadia." Will the real Nadia please dance across the balance beam, cartwheel through the air and then stand up?
Then: Nadia Comaneci Birthplace: Onesti, Romania Age: 14 Height: 4'11" Weight: 83 lbs. Coach: Bela Karolyi Age Started: 6 Achievements: Three gold medals at the Montreal Olympics Now: Dominique Moceanu Birthplace: Hollywood, Calif. Age: 13 Height: 4'5" Weight: 70 lbs. Coach: Bela Karolyi Age Started: 3 Achievements: U.S. National Champion