Dominique Moceanu, one of the Magnificent Seven gold-medal winning gymnasts, says the sport is changing the emphasis on skinny gymnasts

By Julie Mazziotta
August 16, 2016 04:30 PM
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These days the most dominant U.S. gymnasts like Simone Biles and Aly Raisman have strong, muscular bodies that enable them to pack their routines with more flips and tricks than ever. But that shift to a more powerful frame is a big change from “Magnificent Seven” gymnast Dominique Moceanu‘s days when she says her coaches routinely body shamed and threatened her to lose weight.

In 1996 Dominique Moceanu, then 14, and her teammates captured the United States’ first team gold at the Atlanta Olympics. But Moceanu says it took overcoming extreme “psychological and emotional abuse” from her coaches, Martha and Béla Kérolyi, to get there.

“The methods they used of threats and body shaming and humiliation as a tactic to motivate you to perform better, or calling you names of being fat or overweight were methods of physiological and emotional abuse,” Moceanu, 34, tells PEOPLE. “That does not create success for athletes.”

“We are the exception when we won in those environments, because it was a survival of the fittest kind of mode.”

[Note: The Kérolyi’s are still the U.S. gymnastics national team coordinators, though they plan to retire after these Olympics.]

That kind of pain and pressure caused unnecessary injuries, Moceanu says.

“I was 4 feet, 4 inch, 75 lbs., and completely healthy – other than the emotional and psychological wear and tear, and the stress of constantly repeating movements where your body is breaking down,” she says. “There was no other reason that my body was broken down.”

While she’s spoken out about the Kéroylis’ training methods for years, Moceanu says there’s a fear of backlash that stops other gymnasts from doing the same, and she’s still afraid that current gymnasts are enduring the same abuse.

“Most of them don’t want to talk about it because so many people are afraid of being shunned,” Moceanu says. “So many people are afraid of having the governing body blacklist them so nobody wants to speak out.”

Still, she’s encouraged that the body image standard for gymnasts is starting to change.

“You have to have very, very powerful legs and a very powerful body these days to handle and keep up with the difficulty level that the sport requires,” Moceanu says. “But with that muscle mass they have to stay slender as well to do those skills and not injure themselves. So I think there is a happy medium and a nutritional way to do that.”

Biles in particular, with her sunny disposition and strength on the mats, seems to have it figured out.

“I know Simone Biles has a great relationship with her [head coach, Aimee Boorman],” Moceanu says. “Simone is not a numbers kid and she doesn’t do the repetition that we used to do. And she’s not all banged up, she’s not all taped up. Her spirit’s healthy, she’s smiling, she’s enjoying the sport, and that’s absolutely how it should be, and I’m so happy to see that.”

“Because our generation paid a price, and right now, if she can have that, that’s amazing.”

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