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Dominique Moceanu of 'Magnificent Seven' wants to rebuild the culture of gymnastics

"It's not the sport itself that hurt us — it was the people. It was the adults. The sport made us and shaped us into who we are," said the 1996 gold medalist.
dominique moceanu
Dominique Moceanu became the youngest U.S. gymnast to win Olympic gold in 1996.Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc / Sygma via Getty Images

It's been 25 years since Dominique Moceanu and the rest of the "Magnificent Seven" made history at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and became the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to win gold.

"I was a baby," said Moceanu, who took teammate Kerri Strug's place in the all-around finals after Strug's infamous vault landing. "I think of myself in that situation being so young and having so much pressure. And the pressure wasn't ever scary to me — it was all the other external factors that I couldn't control, the way people were treating me."

At just 14 years old, she became the youngest U.S. gymnast to win Olympic gold. And she'll always be the youngest, since the International Gymnastics Federation later changed the age limits.

The so-called "Magnificent Seven" wave to the crowd after being awarded their gold medals in the team competition at the Olympic Games in Atlanta on July 23, 1996.John Gaps III / AP

"I look at that little girl and I want to tell her, 'Hang on to your seat because you're going to have a wild ride the next 25 years,'" said Moceanu, who today is married with two kids and turns 40 later this year. "You're going to have people doubting you and people hating on you and people who don't believe you, but stay the course. Do what's right even when it's hard. It would have been nice to have had someone just kind of uplifting that into my mind."

Moceanu's tumultuous upbringing was documented in her 2012 memoir, "Off Balance," where she described emotional and physical abuse from her coaches as well as her father, and revealed that she had a secret sister who was born without legs, prompting her parents to give her up for adoption. Moceanu has said she was "blacklisted" for speaking up about abuse in U.S. gymnastics, and she later became a vocal defender of the gymnasts who were victims of Larry Nassar. In 2017 she testified before Congress about the "culture of fear, intimidation and humiliation" that existed in the sport.

Moceanu performs on the beam during training at the Georgia Dome ahead of the 1996 Olympic Games.Charles Platiau / Getty Images

Today her goal is to change that culture. Three years ago Moceanu and her husband, Michael Canales, also a former gymnast, opened their own gymnastics and yoga center in Medina, Ohio. It is a place where gymnastics is practiced the way Moceanu thinks it should be: safely and with joy. She's in the midst of completing a 300-hour yoga teacher certification, and hopes that incorporating yoga into the gymnastics curriculum will help the athletes with anxiety.

Moceanu balances on the beam during the World Gymnastics Championships in 1995. Tsugufumi Matsumoto / AP

Her own son is among the gymnasts who practice at the center. Just 12 years old, he's vying for a spot in the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. "It's wild, but he wants it," said Moceanu, who also has a 13-year-old daughter.

She knows some parents may be wary of letting their kids do gymnastics professionally, but feels strongly that the sport itself isn't inherently bad.

Moceanu testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a 2017 hearing about sexual, emotional and physical abuse by USA Gymnastics officials.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

"So many of the gymnasts are coming out saying, 'I don't want my kids doing gymnastics,' but it's not the sport itself that hurt us," she said. "It was the people. It was the adults. The sport made us and shaped us into who we are. As long as I feel my child is being taught with someone that I feel comfortable and safe with, of course I'm going to let him do it. I want our sport to grow. I want it to be in a positive light. It has been tainted recently with the abuse scandal. We are trying to rebuild that culture within our own community."

Her husband, who is a co-owner of the gym but also works as a foot and ankle surgeon, is coaching their son.

"He can look to his mom and dad," she said. "I mean, between the two of us, we have 60-plus years of experience in the sport, so there's no doubt we can help guide him and teach him and educate him. But he's so poised. He's such a great student. He's so determined. It's amazing to see what he's doing at his age."

But before 2028 rolls around, Moceanu will tune in to the delayed 2020 Games, which kick off next Friday.

"It's always so exciting to watch," she said. "I feel for these athletes. They've had a year delay. They're ready to go. Unfortunately there's been some difficult circumstances ... not having fans in the arena — you feel the difference in the energy. That's one of the things I remember also from Atlanta, the energy and the chanting — 'U-S-A!' — there was nothing like it. That feeling is electric. So I feel for them, but at least they get to have their Olympic Games."

Moceanu spoke to TODAY on behalf of her partnership with Purely Inspired and the brand's new Superfood product line, exclusively available at Walmart — the healthy, on-the-go snacks are perfect for a busy mom, she said.

That busy-mom lifestyle is one Moceanu is more than happy to claim today — and one that may have been unthinkable to the 14-year-old girl standing on the podium in 1996.

"I'm so proud of who that person became," she said. "I could have really derailed and gotten off onto a really bad track, and I did for a little while, but I was able to turn my life around in a very healthy and positive way. So many people had counted me out. They thought that might not happen for me. So I'm really glad."