Honestly, in retrospect, it was most likely my circumstances and my age — and not the hand of fate, or something equally profound — that plunged me deeply into my first case of true love during the 1996 Olympic Games. It was an exciting and magical time to be an incredibly square, incredibly white little suburban boy of barely 11 years, after all. The digital splendor of mid-'90s logo design and product branding, all being broadcast from the exotic and cosmopolitan locale of Atlanta, Ga. — a metropolis that was a whole 250 miles away from my front door. Between Michael Johnson's freakish speed and the mystery of whatever the hell Izzy the Olympic mascot was supposed to be, I was enamored. I had Olympic Fever.
So, naturally, I watched all of the events religiously — from men's rowing to women's weightlifting. If it was being televised, I was watching. But it was women's gymnastics, unsurprisingly, that truly captured my attention. The women's team, later deemed "The Magnificent 7," was among the finest athletes ever to compete in the sport. There was Kerri Strug, with her miraculous, event-winning 11th-hour vault landing, and Shannon Miller, with her veteran composure and all-around fundamentals. But my eye fell upon someone else: the diminutive, Romanian-American Dominique Moceanu — the youngest and smallest on the team by a long shot. I was absolutely bowled over. Immediately. Known for her precocious floor routines, Moceanu was frequently characterized as "spunky" by the commentators. And she was absolutely magnificent. Who was this woman, and how could I get her into my life?
It was more than a mere infatuation or crush. Yes, I was infatuated; sure, I was crushed. But I was disoriented. Overwhelmed. I was in love, watching Dominique's floor routines, reasoning that I would be 21 when she was 24 — which totally wouldn't be out of the question — wondering if I had enough savings to find a scalped ticket and a seat on the bus to Atlanta. I relished every detail I managed to uncover about Moceanu's personal life. And in the days before Wikipedia or even a somewhat decent GeoCities fan page, this meant reading the backs of Olympic-edition cereal boxes and paying close attention to commentators as they doled out crumbs of backstory.
But The Magnificent 7 soon sealed their gold-medal victory, and the games wound to an end. Not long after the close of the Olympics, while at lunch with my sister, my grandmother and my mother, I found myself so suddenly overwhelmed that I excused myself to the restroom, where I proceeded to relentlessly weep fat, hot tears and mutter "Dominique" to myself again and again. Why? Because I knew that my odds of marrying Moceanu — or probably ever even meeting her — had crossed the threshold into "100 percent unreasonable" territory. She would never be Dominique Rodgers, and we would never own a gymnastics studio together.
In recent years, it has become clear that I wasn't the only person to form some sort of at least mildly frightening obsession with Moceanu — YouTube is littered with fan-made tribute videos featuring stills of Dominique accompanied by the sounds of Culture Club's "I'll Tumble 4 Ya." And no, my tearful realization that I would never marry Dominique wasn't the last time I'd ever cry over a woman in a public restroom. But my experience did, in fact, teach me a very important lesson. I've since forgotten exactly what that lesson is — something to do with unrequited love building character and the world being a cold and indifferent place — but still, even now, whenever I hear any reference to the '96 Games or gymnastics in general, a little lump returns to my throat. Dominique, wherever you are — and I know that she's somewhere in Ohio, as I still Wikipedia her from time to time — a very significant part of me still loves you.
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