November 09, 1998 12:00 PM

Maybe the seeds of rebellion were first sown on the bus. As tiny Dominique Moceanu and other members of America’s gold-medal-winning women’s gymnastics squad barnstormed the country following their triumph at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, they shared cookies and confidences. Sprung for the first time in years from spartan diets and endless hours of practice, the teens giggled about hunks like Brad Pitt (Moceanu’s favorite), gossiped and occasionally got down to financial cases. “All it takes is a couple of discussions on the bus where your peers tell you they’re putting $100,000 into a mutual fund so it can turn into $300,000,” says retired gymnast Kurt Thomas, who became close to Moceanu while serving as a director of the tour. “That’s enough to get you going.”

Finally, whatever doubts were fostered flared into mutiny. After running away last month from her home in the Houston suburb of Spring following a blowup with her father, Moceanu, now 17, filed a petition on Oct. 19 seeking to have herself legally declared an adult so she could take control of her life—and whatever remains of the estimated $2 million in post-Olympic earnings she accused her parents of mismanaging. “Dominique is not trying to divorce her parents,” said her attorney Roy W. Moore, and ultimately it became clear she was not. After several hours of negotiations at Moore’s office on Oct. 27—the day the gymnast had been scheduled to give a deposition to her parents’ lawyer—a pact was reached whereby Moceanu’s petition will be withdrawn and she will reportedly be recognized as an adult. “There were tears and hugs,” says a source close to the talks. “The family is relieved to get back on some sort of track.”

All along, even Dominique’s staunchest supporters didn’t dispute that her Romanian-born parents, themselves former gymnasts, had tried to act in what they believed to be the best interest of the older of their two daughters. (Little sister Christina, 9, is also being trained as a gymnast.) Over the years, they acknowledge, her hard-driving father sank some $200,000 into her development and moved the family several times to facilitate her career, while her doting mother, Camelia, 37, ferried home-cooked meals to her when she was training an hour’s drive away with former coach Bela Karolyi. “They wanted to make something of their daughter,” says Dominique’s Olympic teammate Kerri Strug, 20. “But there’s a very fine line between being supportive and being pushy.”

That line becomes finer still, gymnastics insiders point out, when a child becomes the family meal ticket—as happened with the Moceanus in 1996, when father Dumitru, 44, quit his job as a used-car salesman to devote himself entirely to his daughter’s career. By then, gold medals in hand, Dominique and her Olympic teammates were commanding fees of $5,000 to $6,000 per appearance on their post-Atlanta gymnastics tour, which visited more than 50 cities. She also appeared in Kodak TV spots and published an autobiography.

“Here she was dealing with a father she wanted to love and a manager she wanted to hate,” says Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine. Add to this a dose of typical adolescent rebellion, in this case exacerbated by the conflict between Dumitru’s autocratic, European paterfamilias style and his daughter’s Americanized expectations, and the surprise is not that a blowup occurred, but that it didn’t happen sooner. “She’s growing up,” says Strug. “She’s not just going to listen and do whatever anybody tells her to do anymore.”

The Moceanus’ Waterloo may have been the mammoth, 70,000-square-foot gymnastics facility built near the family home last year and valued at a minimum of $1 million. Widely ridiculed within the gymnastics community as too big and costly to turn a profit, it spurred Dominique—with the encouragement of friends including Thomas—to press her father for an accounting. “I said, ‘I wanna start putting money away for my future,’ ” Dominique told Dateline NBC on Oct. 26. “And he said, ‘Why do you need that? The gym is all your earnings, the gym is what you’re gonna get later on.’ ” Says Thomas: “Dumitru treated her like a little baby, and all she wanted to do was know.”

At that point, Dominique swallowed her worries and tried to focus on regaining peak form, a process complicated by the succession of coaches she had worked with since Karolyi’s post-Olympic retirement—not to mention the 6-inch, 20-pound growth spurt that had transformed the 4’6″, 72-lb. sprite who had dazzled Atlanta. Things finally seemed to be clicking in July, when—with the help of Luminita Miscenco, 26, a new coach her father had imported from Romania—Dominique took the individual all-around first place at the Goodwill Games in Uniondale, N.Y. But it was a hollow victory—the $10,000 prize simply rekindled her concerns about money.

The simmering tensions came to a boil on Oct. 17, when Dominique clashed with her father over her coach, whom he believed had encouraged her drive for independence. Dumitru exploded, threatening to fire Miscenco and have her deported. Dominique countered by vowing to quit. But instead she ran away (with Miscenco and two male friends, one a former coach at the gym) and tried to stand on her own. “I called home and said, ‘Oh, Mom, Dad, I’m not coming home,’ ” Dominique told Dateline NBC. ” ‘Next time you hear from me, it will be from a lawyer.’ ”

Dumitru came back swinging. “He told me he was filing kidnapping charges against these people and calling the INS about deporting the coach,” says Ellen Yarrell, 49, Dominique’s court-appointed temporary guardian. “The parents were very, very concerned that these individuals, whom they believe turned Dominique against them, were going to misuse her money, and she’d wind up penniless.”

Though both sides had initially seemed “deeply entrenched in their position,” according to Yarrell, in the end blood may have proven stronger than money. (The agreement reached by the family Oct. 27 must still be submitted to a judge for what is expected to be his routine approval.) And that’s the way Dominique said she wanted it from the start. “It’s not a matter of money,” she told Dateline NBC. “It’s just I want to be able to control my future.”

Pam Lambert

Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston and Michael Haederle in Norman

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