BELA KAROLYI'S PAST IS STREWN ABOUT the entryway to his Houston gym -- trophies piled on the floor, on counters, on vending machines. Rising above the clutter are photos of his girls, champions like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, whose beaming smiles recall Olympic glory. Bela's future, though, can be found in the very back room, where 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu is prancing on the mats. Today she is performing not just for her storied coach but also for his choreographer pal Geza Pozsar. Dominique's floor routine boasts exhilarating leaps and tumbles, but Pozsar, who worked alongside Bela with the incomparable Nadia back in Romania, is obsessing about finger extension. On the sixth try, Dominique reaches for the heavens. ""Foarte vina draga,'' he says. ""Very good, my dear.'' Then he exults: ""The Nadi hands. It still works after 20 years.''
The Nadi hands, the Nadi body lines, the Nadi face, the Nadi haircut, the Nadi ribbons in the hair. Even Dominique, who has seen footage of 14-year-old Nadia's gold-medal Olympic performance in 1976, was stunned by side-by-side pictures of herself and the young Comaneci in a magazine. ""I was like, "Wow, amazing.' It looks like we're the same person,'' says Moceanu, the American-born daughter of Romanian migrs. And this summer, 20 years after Nadia, history, too, might repeat itself. Another Bela girl wonder may turn her dazzling talent into Olympic gold. ""She is ready,'' says her coach, ""to show the world how much she enjoys performing for them.''
Dominique's Comaneci connection is played up and down by Karolyi, at 54, gymnastics' consummate gamesman. Without question, what the girls have in common is a physical resemblance and a ferocious competitiveness. ""These girls are not pussycats. Both are fighters -- mean fighters,'' Geza says admiringly. There the similarity ends between the buoyant, all-American girl, who likes country music and mall-crawling, and the smoldering Romanian princess who emerged from the darkest corner of Iron Curtain tyranny. And Bela is equally happy to expound on the differences, since it allows him to resurrect another gymnastics icon, Mary Lou Retton. Turns out Dominique's personality is Retton redux. Who can forget, he wants to know, how Mary Lou vaulted and smiled her way first to a gold medal in 1984 and then onto a Wheaties box? ""Both are open books, laughing and crying,'' he says. ""People love to see the human feelings.''
Bela had hoped to keep his latest ""open book'' closed a bit longer. Then last summer Moceanu upset two-time world champion Shannon Miller (following story) to become the youngest U.S. national champion ever. ""I would have preferred not to create an early sensation,'' says Karolyi. ""I'm concerned about peaking too soon.'' And with good reason. Olympic pressure has overwhelmed some of Bela's previous champions, a few of whom failed even to make the Olympic team. And in 1992 in Barcelona, Karolyi's star, world champion Kim Zmeskal, fell off the balance beam and out of contention. But at the 1995 nationals, Dominique bristled when Bela suggested she might be content with any medal. ""I don't care what Bela says. I want to win,'' she told her dad. Karolyi didn't complain: ""I couldn't stop her development. She has a natural confidence that's just amazing.''
Technically, Moceanu still has to qualify for the seven-member U.S. team; the national trials are in Boston at the end of June. But she is such a shoo-in NBC has already ordained that she'll be one of the centerpieces of its Olympic extravaganza in Atlanta. ""Dominique can really light it up,'' says Bart Conner, the American gymnastic gold medalist who recently married Nadia Comaneci. ""She's adorable and she knows it. Shannon Miller and some of the other champions, you know they've always wanted to be great gymnasts. With Dominique, you know she's always dreamed of being a star.''
But at her tender age and diminutive size (4 foot 6 and 71 pounds), Moceanu is also fated to be poster child for the quadrennial backlash against her sport. The Olympic showcase inevitably escalates criticism that women's gymnastics -- with its emphasis on youth and tiny bodies and its fierce training regimen -- is an institutionalized form of child abuse. To some extent, the sport has acknowledged a problem. For the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the minimum age for gymnasts has been raised from 14 to 16. But Moceanu dismisses all such concern as condescension. ""I love this sport, and I'm doing what I have to do for me,'' she says. ""But some people just don't get it. I'm not losing my childhood. I have the rest of my life to have a childhood.''
Prize money: for now, she lives a normal teen life only on Sundays. The rest of the week she is a professional athlete, with stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, prize money at competitions and corporate backers. (Dominique appears, along with Nadia, in a new Kodak TV ad.) She arrives at the gym from her nearby home by 7:30 for a session that runs more than three hours. She goes home for lunch and taped TV lessons, then does physical therapy, usually massage or ultrasound, for an hour. Dominique is back at the gym by 4 p.m. for another four-hour workout. She then darts home to cram dinner, homework, chores and a little computer play or TV into two hours. ""Then I go to bed so I can wake up and start all over again.'' (She relies on a double alarm -- at 6:50 a.m. and again at 6:55.)
Dominique believes she is living out her own dream. It is clearly also her parents' dream. At 16, her father, Dumitru, was a promising gymnast on the Romanian junior national team. But his mother forced him to quit to concentrate on schoolwork. ""From that point I always said to myself, "My first-born will get that chance that I never had to be a great gymnast','' he says. (His second-born, Christina, 6, is also now in five-day-a-week classes.) The program for Dominique began with character building. ""My wife stayed home and we watched every step,'' he says. ""We taught her how to act, how to talk, to have manners. She has very strong manners.'' She also has a strong grip, which her parents discovered when they dangled the infant from a backyard clothesline to probe her gymnastics aptitude.
Dominique was such a natural talent that by the time she was 3, Dumitru was already badgering Karolyi to take her on. Bela refused. ""Stick to Tiny Tots,'' he told them. But when Dominique was 9 Karolyi relented and the family moved from Florida to Houston. Bela admits to being smitten from the moment he saw her perform. ""The smile, the personality, the way she was relating to me more than anyone else,'' he says. Dad didn't have to search far for a role model for his daughter. He chose, not Nadia or Mary Lou, but himself. ""I took her a few times to work with me so she can see how hard I work and the commitment I have,'' says Dumitru, who manages a local Ford dealership. ""So she knows I'm doing the same as she's doing.''
And what Dominique does, she does often. Karolyi emphasizes repetitions of basic skills and fragments of routines rather than long run-throughs. ""Without everyday consistent work, you can't achieve what everyone wants -- the Olympics,'' he says. In this high-tech world Bela remains a primitive. Few coaches still insist that their kids, let alone their champions, climb ropes without legs.
More flips: Dominique has progressed, well, by leaps and bounds. No one else has ever gone from women's junior champion to senior champ in just one year. Can she vault ahead in Atlanta next? ""Who's the best and who's going to win is not often the same,'' says Bart Conner. ""And Dominique really knows how to sell it.'' She has also boosted her skill level dramatically in the past year, adding more flips and twists to help her challenge her veteran teammate Miller, as well as Romanian, Russian and Chinese stars. ""I remembered a little girl doing basic tricks,'' says Svetlana Bouguinskaia, a former Soviet gold medalist who trained recently at Karolyi's. ""But Dominique learns everything so quickly and is now doing amazing things.''
Dominique is an equally quick study outside the gym. At the age of 10 she was already practicing her autograph: ""Dominique Moceanu, Olympics 1996. For Sure!'' Says Karolyi: ""Shyness doesn't help in gymnastics.'' Yet it is epidemic, and most of the girls would prefer five hours on the rings to five minutes with a journalist. Not Moceanu, who can score perfect 10s in Olympic sound bites: ""I was taught if you work hard enough to get where you want to be, sometimes your dreams come true.''
For sure, there is no ""for sure'' at the Olympics. Not even that there'll be a mawkish made-for-TV movie of Dominique's Olympic quest, though her autobiography was published last week. Her mother, Camelia, has assured her, ""Whatever comes comes, it's nothing we're going to be so disappointed or depressed about.'' But Dominique understands what's at stake and the risks inherent in being the top-billed star on the world's premire stage. ""So far everything has gone great for me, but we'll see how things turn out,'' she says. ""I guess I know in the back of my mind that it'll really hurt if things don't keep going that way.'' But quickly she flashes a beatific smile. Why worry, when everything's coming up Nadi?