All the excitement surrounding the gold-medal winning 2012 U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team has brought attention back to the first team to achieve that feat—the Magnificent Seven, who won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Dominique Moceanu was 14 at those games, the youngest and smallest girl on a team of pixies.

But behind the cameras, she struggled to manage the expectations of her demanding, stubborn, and often punishing father and coaches, the pressures of elite competition, the threat of injury, and the desire to take control of her own life.

In her memoir Off Balance (Touchstone, 2012), Moceanu offers a glimpse into her surprising life so far—from realizing the dream of Olympic gold and the hardships that made that dream possible, to emancipating from her parents in a public trial at 17, to discovering a long-lost sister given up for adoption, born without legs and yet living a parallel life in competitive gymnastics. She spoke with Christianity Today about how she has dealt with all that life has thrown at her, and how her faith has played a role in it all.

At 23 you found out you had a third sister, Jennifer, whom your parents had given up for adoption when you were 6, because she was born without legs and they knew they could not afford to care for her. What has that relationship meant to you?

My sisters and I, we all say that this happened for a reason. All the dots were connected from above, because all of this is too unbelievable to have it be just coincidence. Jennifer is very faithful, and Christina is faithful, and we all believe that God was leaving clues so she could find us one day. But she needed to be in the family she was placed in so she could blossom and grow and God did that for her.

It was supposed to be a closed adoption, but somehow a clerical error left all my family's information as a clue. Had that not been there, I don't know that she would have had an easy time finding me. It wasn't easy, but with that information it certainly made things a lot easier because she wouldn't have known where to start.

We believe it was all meant to be and we were supposed to meet each other. These things you only see in the movies! But there was someone connecting the dots on a much bigger scale.

How did you feel when you first heard about your sister? She sent you a letter introducing herself—what was going through your mind as you were reading that?

A lot of emotions! I was nine months pregnant; I was in the midst of five finals that week. I had just taken one and I took a break to go to the post office to pick up this letter. I was sitting in my car and I didn't recognize the name on the package. I opened it and there were ten photos; I looked through them and in my hand was the spitting image of my younger sister Christina. In the other hand I had the adoption papers that had my parents' signatures on them, and I knew them so well, I knew it had to be true. It wasn't some make-believe story or a fan trying to get closer to me somehow. I knew it was the truth. I didn't for one second doubt it. Everything she had put in there was overwhelming evidence; there was no question in my mind.

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When I saw that, my immediate reaction was, I've got to ask my parents! I was overcome with emotion—I was enraged, I was so upset that I had been lied to by omission for 20 years and for all that time I didn't know and we were missing out on somebody's life. My father was very domineering and he made all the decisions, and I think he didn't know what to do. They delivered Jennifer at a charity hospital because they didn't have any insurance. Back in Romania, Jennifer would have ended up in a Romanian orphanage, but in America she had so much better luck with finding a family who could take her in.

It was such a shock in my life, and if it shocked me—I received a gold medal at 14 years old and left home in a public ordeal and emancipated at 17, all these things that happened in my life—I didn't think anything could shock me! But Jennifer … she was a surprise.

I had to write her back that day, deliver Carmen a few weeks later, finish my finals, and then make it right for Jennifer. I wrote her a letter and said, "I believe you. And you're going to be an auntie soon! But let me deliver this baby healthy, so stress doesn't have an adverse effect on my unborn child." I had a lot going on! She understood, and that was my way of reaching out to her so she didn't have to wait a long time. I sent her a bouquet of flowers, and she knew at that time that we had accepted her. That's what I wanted her to feel and I wanted her to know that.

After that we just took time to get to know each other. It was important to me that before it all came into the public that we knew each other and understood each other's lives and that we were ready for this. You can't just throw somebody out there into the spotlight unprepared.

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Eventually Jennifer came to Cleveland and we met. I also wanted her to meet my mom before everything came out, I thought that was important, so over Christmas the following year I had Jennifer meet my mom, and had them reunite, and that was a really special moment. Then when it was time to come out, it all came out the right way.

In the book, you detail many of the challenges of growing up in the world of elite gymnastics. Body image, pressures for perfection in practice and competition, dealing with disappointment, having important decisions made for you by adults—all these conflicting messages were coming at you at a very formative time in your life. What role did your faith play in your emotional and spiritual development at that time?

I was going through it all and I felt at times there wasn't anything but faith to turn to. I would pray before I walked to the gym every single day—I didn't want to be yelled at or belittled for not trying my very best, or humiliated because in the coach's mind I had gained weight when really I didn't, they were playing mind games with me—I had to have the strength to get through that mentally and not have a breakdown, but also keep my body safe physically. I prayed a lot. That's all I had in the gym, that was the thing I could turn to. Every night, before routines, before I'd walk into the gym, I would say a prayer that somebody [would be] with me and that one day things would get better. Everyone goes through hardships and I knew that I just had to keep giving my best effort and the results would eventually come. I had to believe that, because if I didn't, I don't know if I would have been able to make it through the challenges in my youth.

Your childhood was full of difficult relationships—with your parents and with the Karolyis, who played a significant role in your gymnastics career as coaches. You emancipated from your parents when you were 17, but are on good terms with them today. How did that decision come about?

My father wasn't allowing me control and the financial freedom that I was asking for. I was 17, about to be 18 within a year, so I started asking more questions because I felt that I needed to start learning about those things. It was just one of those topics that my father and I butt heads over—he always felt that he knew what was best and I always felt that I needed to learn and gain my independence so that when I got out into the real world I [would know] how to handle things. I feel badly that my mom is always lumped into the "my parents" situation, because she wanted to give me that from the beginning, but it was my father who was being stubborn at the time, and he didn't want to relinquish control to me because he feared I would be taken advantage of and he knew what was best. That's the only reason I had to go to court to file for emancipation, to have the courts legally grant me control of my financial future. They declared me an adult at 17, that I was capable of handling my finances. That was the only way my dad would be forced into signing the rights to me. It's hard for someone to watch their daughter walk away and they're afraid to let her go, especially a dad. My mom always knew I would be able to take care of myself, but my dad was afraid.

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How did that healing and forgiveness come about?

That was one of the hardest moments of my life. It's hard to leave home in that manner—I never planned to leave home that way—so when I left suddenly, it took a while to gather my thoughts and gain my independence. I didn't speak to my father for about six months, then I came back around Easter the following year. My mom really wanted us to have a time of peace, and she is a faithful woman, and at that time I came home and we shared a few words. The healing process was starting.

It took a lot longer, into my 20s, before I really started to make peace with everything. I met my husband Mike when I was 19, and we were dating and my husband really understood my father. My dad really liked Mike, and knowing that he approved of somebody in my life—and for him it was really hard to approve of many people—that was another part of the healing process. I brought him home and it was a new chapter in our lives.

Little by little I forgave my father. When he got diagnosed with a very rare cancer, I saw what that did to him. I saw how vulnerable it made him, I saw how he lost weight. He got so sick and he couldn't eat, he went into hospice, and in the end it didn't matter because he was still my father and I loved him and wanted him to know that.

But it wasn't all pain—you were a member of the "Magnificent Seven" team that won the first team gold for U.S. women's gymnastics at the 1996 Olympics! What are your most positive memories of your Olympic experience?

I have many positive memories! I was able to represent my country, and put on the red, white, and blue—how many people in the world get to do that? Standing on the podium with my teammates, and being the first women's gymnastics team to win this gold medal, it was life-changing! It has allowed me to inspire and impact people that I've never even met. That's really powerful.

Are you watching the gymnastics events at the 2012 London Olympics?

Absolutely! I don't miss it, ever.

Off Balance: A Memoir
Off Balance: A Memoir
256 pp., 16.3
Buy Off Balance: A Memoir from Amazon