Seventeen-year-old Olympic gymnastics champion Dominique Moceanu was declared a legal adult in Houston State District Court yesterday after her parents agreed to drop their resistance to the action. The decision gave Moceanu some measure of financial independence and concluded a painful and public dispute that began last week when Moceanu filed a lawsuit in which she alleged her parents had squandered her earnings from gymnastics and asked to be declared an adult 11 months before her 18th birthday.

"This wasn't very easy for me," Moceanu told reporters after yesterday's hearing. "This was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It was something I felt I had to do. . . . This is a great day, but a sad day. I want to get one thing straight: I'm not living at home, I'm not going back home."

Dominique's parents, Dumitru and Camelia, agreed to settle rather than fight their daughter in court. A preliminary agreement was reached Tuesday afternoon after Dominique met with her parents in a secret location in downtown Houston. Yesterday's hearing lasted about 20 minutes and was interrupted briefly when Dumitru burst into tears, according to the Associated Press. Dumitru also hesitated when asked whether he agreed with the settlement. After three requests from the judge, he said yes and signed the document with tears in his eyes, the AP reported.

"They had to do this to save their family," said a spokesman for Katherine Scardino, the parents' attorney. "They had not talked to their daughter for a week. She was going to become emancipated anyway when she turned 18 in 11 months. They weren't going to risk their family, or what little they have left of their family."

Although Dominique won control over all future earnings, yesterday's ruling did not address the financial concerns Dominique raised in the lawsuit. Dominique's father remains the trustee of the financial trust in her name. She will not gain control of it or its major asset, the state-of-the-art gymnasium Moceanu Gymnastics, Inc., until she turns 35 -- unless she takes further legal action. "That's going to have to be sorted out," said Ellen A. Yarrell, who had been appointed legal guardian to Dominique.

"She can do everything but vote and drink," Yarrell said after the hearing. "Dominique is celebrating her adulthood with her friends and supporters. I'm sure, at some point in the future, she will want to visit with her parents. I know she wants to see her little sister {9-year-old Christina} desperately."

In the agreement that Dominique and her parents brought before State District Judge John Montgomery, they jointly stated that she was living separate from her parents, was self-supporting and managing her own financial affairs. Moceanu moved into a new apartment last Thursday. She had run away from home Oct. 17. The agreement also stated that gaining status as a legal adult was in Dominique's best interest.

After agreeing to the terms Tuesday, Dominique hugged her parents, Yarrell said.

Still, there was concern yesterday morning that the deal would be nixed before reaching the courtroom. Scardino's spokesman said Dumitru and Camelia were deeply disappointed Dominique did not go home Tuesday night to visit with them and her sister. Dominique's father called Scardino's office yesterday and said on speakerphone he was unhappy because Dominique had gone off with "those people" again, according to Susan Rutherford, Scardino's assistant. Rutherford said he was referring to the three people Dominique's parents blame for leading their daughter astray: 26-year-old Romanian coach Luminita Miscenco, who was fired Oct. 17 by Dumitru; 32-year-old Brian Huggins, who helped construct Moceanu Gymnastics, Inc.; and 23-year-old Jeff Pudlo, a former trainer at the gym who also was fired.

Yarrell confirmed that all three have provided assistance to Dominique since she left home. An adult whom Yarrell declined to name signed the lease for Dominique. Since filing the lawsuit, she has not attended class at the private Northland Christian School. Yarrell said, however, that Dominique intends to resume her education and graduate with her class next spring. After making her statement at the courthouse yesterday, Dominique declined to answer questions.

Among the practical results of the ruling: Dominique will have to get her car refinanced in her own name. She also will have to have her apartment lease and auto insurance put under her name.

At 14, Moceanu was the youngest member of the gold medal-winning U.S. gymnastics team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Before the Olympics, she was considered the outstanding pupil of famed coach Bela Karolyi, who has since retired from coaching elite gymnasts. Her parents came to the United States from Romania in 1980. She had won money from gymnastics since age 10, her suit stated.

Moceanu filed the lawsuit seeking legal status as an adult Oct. 19. She turned 17 Sept. 30. The suit alleged that the funds in a trust in her name had been all but depleted, that the family gymnasium was all but insolvent and that Moceanu's father sold gymnastics equipment using her name without her permission.

In response to the suit, the court issued a restraining order barring Moceanu's parents from communicating with her, visiting her or interfering in any manner with her training schedule. The restraining order was dissolved with yesterday's action. Yarrell was appointed Moceanu's legal guardian. A hearing had been set for Nov. 11.

Moceanu granted just one interview, in her lawyer's office last week. She told the Houston Chronicle her parents robbed her of her childhood, yelled at her constantly and treated her as merely a business interest.

Later in the week, Moceanu issued a statement through her attorney saying she had acted without pressure from external sources.

Dumitru tearfully pleaded for her return, saying he believed others were behind her actions. The family placed some of the blame on Miscenco, whom Moceanu was with when she called attorney Roy W. Moore, who has represented her throughout this process. Miscenco and Dumitru had argued Oct. 17, the day Moceanu ran away and telephoned Moore. Dumitru also insisted that the family had not mismanaged his daughter's earnings. He said Moceanu Gymnastics, Inc., which opened last year in Spring, Tex., had doubled in value and was not in danger of going bankrupt. CAPTION: "This wasn't very easy for me," said gymnast Dominique Moceanu, left, shown with mother after hearing. ec