When my mother bought me my childhood idol’s high school yearbook as a Christmas present, it never occurred to me that I’d ever have to explain myself.
Sure, I thought, this is a little creepy.
I also thought, Small private schools have much thinner yearbooks than large public schools.
And I thought, Other people’s yearbooks are actually kind of boring.
But I never thought, One day I will work with Dominique Moceanu, Olympic gymnast, and confess to her that I own her high school yearbook.
In the summer of 1996, I was traveling up the East Coast with my mother and three siblings, heading from Florida to my grandparents’ houses in upstate New York. Along the way, we stopped at my uncle’s place in Virginia, and it was there that, for the first time in my life, I watched women’s gymnastics: the team competition at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
I suppose it was inevitable that Dominique would be the one I was drawn to. I was twelve and she was fourteen, about to become the youngest American gymnast to ever win an Olympic gold medal. She had a cute, bouncy ponytail, a hairstyle I still chase to this day — my ponytail won’t curl under quite the same way and never bounces. She had an elastic bandage wrapped around her shin, protecting her from the four-inch stress fracture that had plagued her for months, and it made her seem vulnerable yet strong at the same time. She was a warrior. She was America’s sweetheart.
Dominique’s 1996 Olympic floor routine was the one that made me fall in love with her talent — I still pull it up on YouTube every once in a while. From her smile to her trademark bounce after one of her tumbling passes to the move where she dropped to the floor and pounded it like a child having a tantrum, each micro movement feels like it’s been mapped into my brain. Her sets were so elegantly choreographed and designed, the way she performed them so expressive, that they took hold of me on those muggy summer nights, and they’re a part of me to this day.
For the rest of our trip, I made my mother plan our travels around the primetime coverage of women’s gymnastics. We could not have dinner out with my grandparents on the night of the all-around competition. Kerri Strug wasn’t competing after her iconic, one-legged landing due to her injury, so Dominique was in. My grandfather had become more of a Svetlana Khorkina fan – a tall, tempestuous Russian he thought was a “spitfire.” I hotly said that Dominique was too – one just had to watch her compete to see the focus in her eyes, the slight nervous energy that seemed beyond her years.
When Dominique hit her routines, I was her biggest fan, cheering loudly until my noise-adverse grandfather told me to keep it down. And when Dominique didn’t – like the time a slight bobble cost her a placing in the Olympic all-around, and a fall on the head prevented her from winning a medal on the balance beam – I supported her even more.
I was proud of her. I was protective of her. I felt, in the way that only a pre-teen fan can feel, that we could be best friends if we ever met.
However one-sided it was, I sensed a connection to Dominique growing up. I read her autobiography countless times, filing away any detail that proved we had things in common. Her younger sister, Christina, was born seven years after her – the same age difference between me and my younger sister, Brittany! Dominique’s autobiography taught me the word “natch” – short for naturally (natch!) – and I started using it whenever I could.
In the autobiography, there was a picture of Dominique on vacation with her family. She was sitting in a beach chair, wearing large sunglasses and smiling, and on her lap was a copy of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which was and still is one of my favorite books in the world. We could talk about Anne Frank! I thought giddily to myself. It kept me awake at night.
During this time, I wrote Dominique several letters – to this day, they remain the only fan correspondence I ever mailed to anyone. I was also head-over-heels for Leonardo DiCaprio after seeing him in “Titanic,” a movie Dominique said she loved, but somehow I knew that writing to him would be pointless. I didn’t dream of meeting him, or being his girlfriend. I couldn’t care less about his autograph. He was just a poster to hang on my wall, a symbol of the all-encompassing love he embodied in the film, a guy with an adorably nonchalant lock of hair falling across his forehead. But Dominique was different. I could befriend her – I would – and so I took extra care with her letters, decorating the envelopes like an American flag, sticking happy-face stickers all over them. I composed multiple drafts of the same message, not wanting any cross-outs or mistakes in the final copy, which I would fold into a crisp square, place into an envelope and take out to the mailbox the next morning before school. I would feel a surge of excitement when I returned home to find the flag down again, imagining the colorful letters flying across the Southern states to her home in Texas. For weeks I would be on tenterhooks, wondering if I’d receive a reply.
Then the Reese’s International Gymnastics Cup came to Florida in early 1998, and my mother bought tickets. Our seats were up in the nosebleed section, but I used up at least three disposable cameras taking pictures, which would all turn out dark and grainy. Still, I would later spend hours finding Dominique in each one, even if she was a tiny speck, and circling her with a red Sharpie. It was more of an exhibition than an actual competition, and so all of the athletes performed simplified routines to popular songs — Dominique’s was set to “The Shake” by Neal McCoy, a song that mentions Tampa Bay by name. It fired up the crowd, just as Dominique’s performance did at the Atlanta Olympics back in 1996 when she used “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” After the competition, my mom and I overheard a group of people talking about the hotel where all the gymnasts were staying. “Let’s try to get autographs!” someone in the group said, and I looked pleadingly to my mother. Could we?
I was almost fourteen then, mature enough to empathize with a girl not much older than me who might just want privacy. My stomach knotted with the idea of being perceived a pest, or worse: a stalker. But my heart also pounded at the prospect of finally meeting a person I so admired. Common sense and decency told me to go home. But then I’ll always wonder. . .
More than a decade later, when I brought up my post-Reese’s Cup hotel adventure in a recent e-mail to Dominique, she shared her very logical feelings about impromptu meetings with fans. “Of course I’m happy (and enjoy) meeting all of my fans . . . at any of my publicized events,” she wrote. “It’s just the unexpected visits . . . that are concerning. Again, this is only because I don’t always know the motive behind these visits.”
Life for Dominique changed after the ’96 Olympics. She says she used to go to the mall with her family to spend a relaxing weekend together, but once those Summer Games ended, she recalls: “I quickly realized that life was never going to be the same again after I was surrounded by fans crying and trying touch me . . . I was a little frightened [when] I couldn’t get out of the mounds of people surrounding me . . . sometimes these situations can be tough because I never want to be rude to anyone.”
The fan relationship is often built on expectations and hope, however unfair they might be. My expectation going to Dominique’s hotel that night in 1998 was that she’d come down from her room even after a long day of training and competing, and grant me an autograph or, if I was really lucky, a picture. My hope was that somehow she’d see how much we had in common – Isn’t Anne Frank’s diary so beautiful and sad? I’d ask, right there in the hotel, and we’d immediately bond. My celebrity crush is Leo, too – natch! I’d say while we watched “Titanic” together.
Her most famous coach, Béla Károlyi, was in the lobby. Károlyi is legendary for having coached the perfect Nadia Comăneci back in his homeland of Romania, then coaching Mary Lou Retton to become the first American all-around Olympic gold medalist in 1984. He’s known for his bear hugs and loud shouts of encouragement – during the 1996 Olympics, he wasn’t even an official coach of the American team and yet he could be heard above all others in the background, shouting, “Yes! You can do it!” In her 2012 memoir, Off Balance, Dominique confesses that he “terrified” her.
I met Béla in that hotel lobby, and he was just as imposing as he seemed on TV – broad-shouldered, with a bushy mustache and intense eyes that could cut just as quickly as they could twinkle. I was shaking when I asked him for an autograph, and my voice quavered when I asked if he knew whether Dominique would be coming down. “No,” he said shortly, and dashed off his signature without looking at me. Chagrined, I told my mother we should just go home.
By the time I started high school in 1999, my parents were divorced, and Dominique had filed for emancipation from her own parents. Her troubles at home were starting to become well-documented, having been featured on “Dateline,” in People, and various other news outlets. I printed out transcripts, saved screenshots, and ripped spreads from magazines I saw on the coffee table at the dentist’s office, which I would take into the bathroom with me when I went to brush my teeth, then return when I came out, missing a few pages in the middle.
My ninth grade American Government teacher overheard me talking about Dominique before class, and said something like, “Isn’t that the one who sued her parents?” I treated any question like this as a hostile one, and vehemently defended her from even the most unintentional or nonexistent attack.
“You don’t know what she’s been through,” I would say.
At the time, Dominique had filed a protective order against her father, claiming that he was stalking and threatening her. There had already been reports of how her post-Olympic fortune had been squandered entirely on a decadent gym in Houston, named Moceanu Gymnastics, and in other investments that her father had made.
Years later, Dominique would reunite with her family, and she was on good terms with her father when he passed away in 2008. My own parents would start seeing each other romantically again only a few years after their divorce, and are still dating to this day. But to the extent that the world always feels like it’s ending when one is just fourteen years old, it felt very much so in 1998, and I took some comfort from the fact that my idol was experiencing the same thing, even if it was horrible, and even if it wasn’t that similar at all. It felt like another way that we were bonded to one another.
Only a few months before Dominique made the announcement about the legal separation from her parents in December 1998, she won all-around gold at the Goodwill Games, the first non-Russian woman to ever do so. I watched the competition at my dad’s new house in Orlando, two hours from where I lived with my mother and my siblings. He had a TV and VCR setup far superior to my mother’s, so I spent the entire weekend perched on a chair next to them, rabidly hitting “Record” and “Stop” at the right places to craft my tape sans commercials.
Recently, Dominique posted to her social media accounts a picture of her from the Goodwill Games, saying: “This win came at a time few people believed in me.” More than any other moment in her career, she has said in interviews and her memoir that the Goodwill Games victory was the most personally fulfilling accomplishment of her career. In 1998, I didn’t feel like many people believed in me, either, but I believed in Dominique, and her triumph felt like mine, too.
Just like at the Olympics, I sensed this core of indomitable strength in her profile, in the way she’d mutter something to herself under her breath right before she launched into a big tumbling pass. There was something vulnerable about her too, perhaps more than ever that year – she had grown considerably taller, which in gymnastics can sound the death knell for a career because it throws off a gymnast’s center of gravity and forces her to relearn moves that were once automatic. She struggled at competitions like the 1997 National Championships and World Championships, where she placed ninth and fourteenth, respectively. At the Goodwill Games, she and her new coach Luminita Miscenco spoke only in Romanian to each other, Miscenco having moved from Romania earlier that year specifically to coach Dominique, and Dominique’s parents having moved from Romania shortly before Dominique’s birth in 1981. I couldn’t understand their fervent conversations in between events, but I knew after Dominique had a slight break on the uneven bars that they were busy making adjustments, trying to shake off the mistake even as they were visibly rattled. The night before, Dominique ran a fever of 104 and had been battling sickness the entire competition.
All of that added up to make her Goodwill Games victory particularly sweet. When she cried on the podium, I cried with her. But when her family broke up later that year, I wasn’t surprised. I’d sensed that even in her great joy there was a sadness deep down inside, recognizing it because it mirrored my own.
I did eventually get Dominique’s autograph when I met her after the 1999 Rock ‘n’ Roll Championships, but I didn’t befriend her as I’d once dreamed. I had better seats than at the Reese’s Cup the year before, so my photos are grainy and dark but don’t need red Sharpie markups to indicate Dominique’s position. Afterward my mom and I waited outside the exit for Disney’s Wide World of Sports until the athletes came out, and I thrust my copy of Dominique Moceanu: A Gymnastics Sensation by Krista Quiner in front of Dominique, excited to finally obtain her autograph on something. I can’t remember what I said to her while she signed it – it was probably so stupid and stammering that I’ve blocked it out. I immediately went home and painstakingly applied clear packing tape to the cover of my autographed paperback in a misguided attempt to “protect” it. I replayed the thirty seconds I’d been within feet of Dominique over and over in my head for weeks afterward, but the only picture I’d taken to commemorate the moment was of the back of Dominique’s head, her white scrunchie holding up her bouncy brown ponytail.
Then came the Christmas where my mother bought Dominique’s high school yearbook, wrapping it and putting it under the tree for me to discover. My mother treats gift-giving with reverence, always wanting to provide the most unique present, the biggest surprise. Tied with my shameful confession to Dominique that I even owned this yearbook is my confession to my mother, who is finding out only now that I had peeked at the present beforehand, and so was faking my surprise on Christmas Day.
Years passed, and while I always followed Dominique’s career – I was disappointed when injury kept her from trying out for the 2000 Olympics, and angered when an unfair decision kept her from making a comeback in 2003 — I also grew up and became busy with my own life. I fell in love with the man who would later be my husband. I went to college, where I wrote a young adult novel based on my experiences, Psych Major Syndrome. After college, I sent query letters and sample pages of the manuscript around to agents, and it was picked up and sold to a publishing house.
I worked on a few other projects, but there was one idea I kept going back to, an idea that had started to take root that summer of 1996 when I watched the American women’s gymnastics team win gold. As such an avid fan of the sport, I’d always wanted a novel or series on the shelves that would reflect what I’d seen on TV – not just one of the Babysitter’s Club’s little sisters learning how to do a flip, but something more. What kind of flip? A layout? A pike? A punch front? A whip-back? How many twists? How many rotations? What rotation is the twist on? Those were the nitpicky questions I found myself asking when I read books that glossed over the experience of being a gymnast.
It wasn’t just the technical details that I craved. I’d always wanted to read about an elite gymnast – the kind of girl who was just as likely to be competing on national television as she was to be working on a seventh grade book report. But I didn’t have any personal experience in that area, and while the job of a fiction writer is to make stuff up, I wanted to be sure anything I actually wrote was authentic. I reached out to Dominique’s publicist by simply clicking a link on Dominique’s website, and we ended up having a long telephone conference before he set up another with Dominique herself. And just like that, the Go-for-Gold Gymnasts series was born.
Ultimately, I still wanted to be friends with the gymnast I’d grown up idolizing, and I thought maybe I’d finally found a way to do it.
My e-mails to friends at the time reinforce how excited I was after Dominique and I first talked on the phone to discuss our project. “I spoke with her (!!!)” and “It looks like it’s really happening!” were among my most commonly written messages, together with lots of putting her name in all caps, which in my head sounded just like the overdramatic way announcers would call it out before she stepped out onto the competition floor.
Although we still hadn’t met in person, we worked remotely to craft the book series together, sending notes back and forth, creating the characters. I named one after my sister, Brittany, and she named one after her sister, Christina. When Dominique found out she was pregnant with her first child, I sent congratulations (much less necessarily, I also e-mailed her at one point to say I liked her new haircut, taking advantage of my newfound ability to reach out and actually connect with her). When her daughter was born on Christmas, we named another character “Noelle.” My e-mail inbox was filled with chapters marked with track changes and long chats about how many flips Noelle should do on the balance beam in a row — definitely four, Dominique agreed, a flip-flop to three layout step-outs.
It took four years of work before all four books were published, and that felt fitting – everything in a gymnast’s life is measured in quadrennials. I was surprised at how normal it was to work with Dominique during that time. Once, when a chapter draft was due, I’d gotten snowed under at work and hadn’t completed it yet, technically missing my deadline. When my phone lit up with her name, I glanced down and silenced the ringer. I would talk to her tomorrow, after I’d finished what I was supposed to have already done.
“Who was that?” my husband asked, and I told him. “Thirteen-year-old you is slapping you right now,” he said. “You just got a call from your idol’s private cell phone number, and ignored it.”
I knew he was right. But I also knew that twenty-five-year-old me didn’t want to have to make excuses to my idol, either.
Then there were other times when I felt particularly bogged down in the story. We’d outlined it together and planned everything out, but as happens in any project, I wasn’t always happy with my work. I told this to Dominique in one chat as I drove home from my day job, working at a law firm forty-five minutes away from my house.
“You have to believe in yourself,” she began, and proceeded to give me an epic inspirational talk à-la Tony Robbins for the rest of my commute. When I walked through my door, she was still talking on the other end, and when my husband raised his eyebrows, I mouthed, “Dominique.” He understood, because he knew that she could sometimes get rambling in a motivational speech. It’s kind of what she does, and she’s really good at it.
I did eventually meet Dominique in person. The first time was at the Olympic Trials in 2008. We had coffee and she filled me in on what her Magnificent Seven teammates from ’96 were up to. Even though she reinforced what I already knew – Kerri Strug was working in the government, Shannon Miller was in broadcast television and so on – it felt so salacious hearing it directly from Dominique. As other people affiliated with USA Gymnastics filed into the Starbucks, Dominique would point them out and tell me who they were, and when she introduced me, I tried to smile and not look as startled as I felt.
The last time I saw Dominique in person was when we partook in a book event at her old gym in Tampa, only twenty minutes from where I live. My daughter was less than a month old, and I had to bring her to the reading because my husband was getting our son ready for a daycare production. Dominique began the event by talking about her years at the famed LaFleur’s Gymnastics Academy and how it instilled in her the love of gymnastics that carried her to the Olympics. Then she described our book series. When she called me up to join her, I’d just managed to soothe my daughter to sleep, so I brought her up to the front of the gym with me instead of handing her back to my mother. I had to walk barefoot to address the crowd because the heels I’d uncharacteristically worn for the occasion weren’t allowed on the blue floor mat. That and my daughter snuffling against my chest are the two things I remember about whatever speech I gave, where I talked about how much Dominique had inspired me.
When it came time to sign books, we agreed that we’d sign copies for each other, but the line of young readers was long. Dominique had to catch her flight and I wanted to make my son’s show. In the months that followed, I thought about trying to get those signed copies shipped, but the autograph didn’t matter as much as it once had, when I’d covered my precious book in clear packing tape. I had the experience of working closely with Dominique for four years, and that was more than I’d ever dreamed of in those days of scouting out her hotel and obsessively recording competitions on my VCR.
I dug through old boxes of childhood keepsakes while writing this, and it wasn’t long before my living room floor was covered in photo albums, scrapbooks, rolled-up posters, cut-out images of Dominique glued to cardboard to make paper dolls. I couldn’t find the copy of her high school yearbook, and I started to wonder if I’d gotten rid of it, so embarrassed was I by the level of fandom it represented. If I ever found it, I thought ruefully, I could always ask her to sign it as sort of a macabre joke.
I also called Dominique to talk about her experiences with fans. I intended to tell her about the time I’d followed her to her hotel – I thought maybe I’d already mentioned that once, with a sufficiently self-deprecating roll of my eyes. I intended to tell her about the high school yearbook. That was something I knew I’d never revealed, because it seemed too invasive, too shameful.
Instead, we chatted briefly about our children, excitedly talking over each other as we shared the latest milestones. She has a daughter and a son, both in grade school. My son started pre-K this year, and my daughter is about to turn three. “Time flies!” we agreed. It’s such a cliché, but one that can bond any two parents because, like most clichés, it’s unrelentingly true.
We had to end the call after only a few minutes — Dominique was packing to go out of town. I told her that I might follow up with some questions via e-mail, and she said that was fine. I was kind of relieved that the yearbook confession would have to be made via email rather than over the phone. Except that when I did e-mail her, I still wasn’t brave enough.
Instead, I asked if she ever found it intrusive, some of the things fans did to get close to her, and told her about the time I followed her to her hotel. “My mother, who is very sweet and always wanted to give me a very unique, personal gift for Christmas,” I wrote to Dominique, “would do things like go to the 5-7-9 store and try to buy a poster from them or try to order your high school yearbook for me.” The way I’d phrased it made it sound like my mom had been unsuccessful. Even in the e-mail, even after fifteen years had passed since the Christmas when I received the yearbook, even after Dominique and I had worked together through two Olympic cycles, I was still scared to confess the dirty secret that would make Dominique think I was a nut.
The fact of the matter is that Dominique and I are not best friends, not the way I’d once dreamed we would be. But I also realized that I no longer even wanted that, to the extent that it was ever possible, because that would mean I would have to shed the last remnants of that fan’s adulation to see her as an equal. Of course, I have a relationship with her that I would’ve died for when I was a kid. Instead of sending American flag-decorated letters into the ether, I can e-mail or text or call – Happy birthday! Your haircut looks awesome! How are the kids? – and Dominique will respond. Together, we’ve created something that we’re immensely proud of, a series that will hopefully inspire generations of young gymnasts in the way that Dominique inspired me.
It’s been an honor to work with her, and she’s shown in numerous ways just how grounded she is. When I gave birth to my son, she sent an adorable blue-and-brown-striped baby outfit and a hat designed to make an infant look like a bear. But there will always be a part of me that thinks of her name in all caps, shouted out across the competition floor: DOMINIQUE MOCEANU JUST SENT ME A BABY ONESIE!!! There will always be a part of me that will worry I’ve said something stupid to her, or will shy away from copping to owning her yearbook.
Given that Dominique knows about this piece, I suppose it is now my confession. Dominique, I’m sorry that I was ever such a creeper that I got your high school yearbook under my Christmas tree. I know that’s super weird.
Thanks for making my dreams come true by writing the Go-for-Gold Gymnasts series with me. Maybe someday soon, we can chat about Anne Frank.