Posing a threat? Dominique D'Oliveira is proving she's only a danger to opponents

College Gymnastics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The knock on Dominique D'Oliveira's door came at 3 a.m. She wasn't home, fortunately, or there is no telling where she would be now.

D'Oliveira, a University of Utah gymnast from South Africa, came within an eyelash of likely deportation last fall when officials from U.S. Homeland Security came to her dorm room in the middle of the night. Luckily for her, she was away on a camping trip with a class.

"When I got back, I had a message from my roommates saying they were going to kick me out of the country; I didn't know what to do," D'Oliveira said.

The 5-foot-5 junior with an engaging smile was flagged as a possible terrorist threat by the Immigration and Naturalization Services after she dropped a class last summer, giving her just nine credits instead of 12. When a foreign student drops below 12, they are supposed to notify the international service on campus that they are taking a "vacation semester."

D'Oliveira didn't realize that, and her status as a student was flagged as inactive. At the same time, U.S. security officials were investigating leads that Al Qaeda members were trying to use South African passports to infiltrate the U.S.

After meeting with INS officials and showing proof she was a student and a gymnast and not a terrorist, D'Oliveira decided to leave the country and then return, a move that would activate her status once again. However, no one

could guarantee her she would be allowed back in, not even the government officials who were convinced she wasn't a threat.

"We didn't have many options, because if they sent her home and we tried to appeal it, it was unlikely the appeal would go through in time for her to come back this year," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "We even thought about sending her to Canada and having her try to come in that way, but that was even riskier because if she didn't get in, she'd be stuck in Canada."

D'Oliveira went home for two weeks, then tried to look as innocent as possible while going through customs.

"They pulled me into another room and interrogated me. I was petrified," she said.

The paperwork is straightened out, but so far she has been stopped in customs every time for more interviews.

There was a time when D'Oliveira wasn't so worried about staying home, she almost preferred it.

D'Oliveira was homesick her first semester at Utah - being on the opposite side of the world from one's family can do that - and she nearly stayed when she went home for Christmas.

"My mom told me to stick it out for a year; I guess she knew what she was doing," she said. "I'm happy here now."

D'Oliveira, a member of South Africa's National Team from 1998-2003, so far has competed only on the uneven bars for Utah, but has proven to be a solid leadoff gymnast in the event.

She scored a 9.8 as Utah's first competitor at the National Championships last year and has three scores of 9.825 or better this year.

D'Oliveira is known as one of Utah's hardest workers in practice and is pushing to get into the lineup on other events, but hasn't shown the same consistency in the others as she does on bars.

"She struggles with anxiety," Marsden said. "She wants to do well so desperately, she puts unnecessary pressure on herself. We're working with some ways to deal with that anxiety."

As a competitor, D'Oliveira acknowledges she isn't thrilled with only competing in one event, but sees herself as helping the team by pushing those ahead of her.

"I don't consider myself a specialist, because I'm working hard at everything else, too," she said. "I hope I can compete in other events and maybe do the all-around some day."

Until then, and after last fall's drama, D'Oliveira is simply glad to still be at Utah in any capacity.

"When I was going through that, it was really scary then," she said. "Now, at least I can look back on it and laugh."