By William Plummer
May 13, 1996 12:00 PM

STANDING BESIDE BELA KAROLYI IN his airy Houston gymnasium, it’s easy to feel caught in a time warp. Out on the floor, a dark-eyed, 14-year-old pixie of Rumanian parentage is back-flipping, cartwheeling and handspringing her way through a carefully choreographed routine. The year might be 1976, and the girl Nadia Comaneci. “Many times Nadia and her are shockingly alike,” says Karolyi, 53. “The look, the way she moves. It takes me back 20 years.”

The way she looks could also be a big part of Karolyi’s future. Last August, Dominique Moceanu, in her first major national meet, came from nowhere to win the U.S. women’s all-around gymnastics title in New Orleans. Two months later she won a silver medal on the balance beam at the World Championships in Sabae, Japan. Now Moceanu wants to give gymnastics fans a serious case of deja vu at the Atlanta Olympics. “When I put my mind to something,” says the 4’5″, 70-lb. gymnast, “when I really want it, I can usually pull it out.”

Even Comaneci, who has known Moceanu since the newcomer was 10, has been struck by the resemblance. “When I look at her, yes, I see myself,” says Comaneci, 34, who now has her own gym in Norman, Okla. Yet temperamentally, says Karolyi, Moceanu more closely resembles another of his champions: Mary Lou Retton. Retton, in fact, might seem to be talking about herself when she says, “Dominique is incredibly good—she’s flexible and has great dance ability, and she puts it all together so that she’s having fun out there.”

But enough already. Moceanu is getting tired of the comparisons. “It’s great being compared to them,” she says. “But I want people to remember my name like they do theirs.”

Dominique was born to tumble. The child of Rumanians who defected to the U.S. around 1980—Camelia, now 34, dabbled in floor exercises in grade school in Bucharest, while Dimitry, 41, was the Rumanian junior champion at 13—she was just 5 months old when her father, clowning in their Chicago backyard, had her hang onto the clothesline by her fists. To everyone’s amazement, Dominique hung on until the rope broke and Dimitry caught her, thinking, “She’s going to do something someday.”

When Dominique turned 3, Dimitry, who owned a Greek-American restaurant, phoned his countryman Karolyi. But Karolyi laughed and told him to call back when the kid turned 9. Dimitry, taking the coach at his word, called back in six years—by that time Dominique was a local gymnastics champion. Karolyi was immediately taken with her. “I thought to myself,” he says, ” ‘This is the one!’ ”

The Moceanus moved to Houston, where Dimitry bought a used-car dealership, to be near Karolyi’s gym. By age 12, Moceanu was the junior national champion and the youngest member of the U.S. senior squad. After she won the U.S. women’s championship, she received 6,000 fan letters from around the world. “I think she is just what gymnastics needed,” says Comaneci. “She sparkles all over.”

She is also a tough competitor. Former U.S. gold medalist Bart Conner—who married Comaneci in Bucharest on April 27—recalls a Reno event last January in which female gymnasts were pitted against males. The competition was close; for the women to win, Moceanu had to come through with a nearly perfect floor exercise. She did. “At the very end,” says Conner, “Dominique slides on the floor and points over to where the men were standing, [as if to say] ‘Hah, take that!’ ”

Moceanu’s achievements, though, come at a cost. Each day she rises at 6:50 a.m. in the pink and white bedroom of the family’s mock-Tudor home in north Houston. At the gym by 7:30, she practices until 10:30, then returns home for lunch and several hours of academic instruction, conducted by her mother with the help of a home-schooling TV channel. At 4 she is back again in the gym where she works out until 7:30 p.m. She eats and relaxes until 10:30, then hits the sack.

Moceanu chafes a bit under this pre-Olympics routine, since she has little time for friends from Northland Christian School, which she attended until November. “I miss them,” says Moceanu who plans to re-enroll next fall. “It’s all schedule—eat, sleep, school, gym. I don’t get to just walk around with my friends anymore.”

At times, the little girl becomes visible behind Dominique’s poise and confidence—for example, when she drags one of her lucky teddy bears to big meets. But when the conversation turns to the Olympics, she becomes the tough cookie once more. “The best part is knowing you are winning,” she says, her brown eyes glowing. “That last moment in the last event, when you stick it, and you just know it! And everybody’s cheering. It’s a good feeling standing up there.”