If 13-year-old Dominique Moceanu were a shopping bag and
comparisons were eggs, this diminutive eighth-grader would already
be in danger of bursting at the seams and smashing some of the
great names in gymnastics all over the sidewalk.

Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Svetlana Boguinskaia, Kim Zmeskal
-- at various times Moceanu reminds her coach, Bela Karolyi, of
them all.

With her dark eyes and Romanian heritage -- her father defected
from that country in 1979 and her mother followed a year later
-- Moceanu has a facial resemblance to Comaneci, the star of the
1976 Montreal Olympics. The 4'5", 70-pound Moceanu (pronounced
Mo-che-ah-new) trains every day at Karolyi's gym in Houston with
Boguinskaia and Zmeskal, two former world all-around champions
trying to make comebacks. ``Svetlana's so sharp on her
movements, so elegant and expressive,'' says Moceanu, who has
been befriended by both her elders. ``Kim's so powerful, and I
try to take that with me on the vault.''

Her expressive personality evokes in Karolyi the image of the
bubbly Retton. ``She's an outgoing kid, like Mary Lou,'' Karolyi
says. ``She's not a hidden personality. She can laugh one minute
and cry the next -- an open book. This is a good kind to coach.''

There was nothing but laughter last weekend at George Mason
University in Fairfax, Va., where the much-heralded Moceanu lived
up to her billing. Competing at the senior level for just the
second time, Moceanu, the 1994 U.S. junior national champion, was
named all-around champion of the Visa Challenge, a three-country
invitational that included some of the best young gymnasts from
Belarus, China and the U.S.

One of those she outdid was her mentor and training partner,
Boguinskaia, who at age 22 looked fabulous as she came out of
retirement to participate in her first international competition
since the 1992 Olympics. ``In a couple of years she could be the
best in the world,'' said Boguinskaia, who finished fourth after
falling during her floor exercise.

That's been the plan all along. Born in, of all places, Hollywood,
Calif. -- she and her family later moved to Florida -- Moceanu
has been a gymnastics project from birth. Her father, Dumitru, was
on the Romanian junior gymnastics team as a youngster. When
Dominique was three, Dumitru called Karolyi, who is also a
Romanian expatriate, to see if he could bring his toddler to
Houston to enroll in Karolyi's gym. Wait until she's nine or 10,
Karolyi told him, advising Dumitru to put Dominique in a local
club until then.

Fast-forward to 1991. Nine-and-a-half-year-old Dominique was
watching a gymnastics competition on television when she said to
her father, ``I wish I could train at Karolyi's.''

Dumitru's response? ``O.K., let's go.''

The car dealer packed up his wife, Camelia, who quit her job at a
beauty salon, and two daughters and relocated from Florida to
Houston. Within a year Dominique had become, at 10, the youngest
member ever of the junior national team and was being compared to
Comaneci. Fortunately none of it went to her head. ``This is a
good age,'' Karolyi says of his latest protegee. ``At 13, they
don't get psycho yet over the pressure.''

Indeed, Dominique's initial reaction last weekend to having
attained her first senior win was, ``It's more fun in the seniors.
I liked it.''

Bright and charming, Dominique no doubt will feel the weight of
the world on her shoulders one day not too far in the future.
Whether by the 1996 Olympics she will be America's best gymnast or
merely among the best of what is shaping up to be a very talented
team remains to be seen. But the former is the goal. Dominique
performs older than she looks. Her hand movements on the beam, for
example, are not those of a 13-year-old. The way she carries her
head, her facial expressions, her swagger, if you will, all
conspire to convince us there is an older person inside that tiny
body. And, as she proved last Friday night while pretending to
play Let's Twist Again on the piano during her winning floor
exercise routine, she knows how to preen for a crowd. ``I want
people to remember me for being happy and for my smile,''
Dominique says.

Karolyi believes the presence of Boguinskaia has been a
contributing factor in Dominique's recent progress. ``Dominique's
matured so fast next to Svetlana,'' he says. ``All of a sudden,
this little thing, her head is up. She's smiling. It's very

-- E.M. Swift

COLOR PHOTO:MANNY MILLAN Nothing, it seems, can bar this U.S. gymnast with Romanian roots from stardom. [Dominique Moceanu flying through air and grasping for bar during gymnastics routine]