DOMINIQUE DAWES: A GEM OF A GYMNAST Prize-winning teenager from Silver Spring is aiming for the 1992 Olympic team


SILVER SPRING -- "Amerikaanse turntalent steelt show in Houtrust."

Loretta Dawes doesn't need a foreign language dictionary to understand the Dutch headline about her 14-year-old daughter. The large photo of young Dominique on the front page of the newspaper's sports section, the crowds who stood on their seats at last spring's Dutch Open to cheer the Maryland teen and the medal she brought home told the story.

"American gymnastic talent steals show in Houtrust."

Last April's international competition in the Netherlands wasn't the first time the tiny, 74-pound package of muscles, dynamite and personality had won over the crowd -- and the judges. At the U.S. Gymnastics Championships last month in Cincinnati, Dominique won a gold medal for her dazzling floor exercise, tying with the country's top-ranked gymnast, Kim Zmeskal, and mesmerizing the audience as she flipped, soared and tumbled to "Jump, Shout and Boogie."

"Just a little girl on a playground!" exclaimed one TV commentator about the powerful, but seemingly effortless performance.

"This is the most enthusiastic response we've had to anroutine!" beamed another.

The gold medal she brought home from that competition nohangs in the living room of the Dawes' modest home in Silver Spring -- along with 60 or 70 other medals and ribbons, photos, newsclips and trophies, some as tall as the young gymnast, now ranked ninth in the nation, who has been back-flipping and front-vaulting since age 6.

She's said to have the power of Mary Lou Retton, the long-limbed body of Julie McNamara, the playful, effervescent style of Olga Korbut -- and discipline all her own.

"There are not many kids like this one," says Kelli Hill of Gaithersburg, Dominique's coach. "She's a once-in-a-lifetime kid."

And her sights are now set on once-in-a-lifetime events -- the World Championships coming up this September and the Olympics looming in 1992.

"I know it's in the back of her mind," says Ms. Hill of next year's Olympic Games in Barcelona for which only six girls will be chosen for the U.S. team. "It's her ultimate goal."

And it shows.

One of three children of Loretta and Don Dawes, Dominique is so serious, so single-minded, so disciplined and intense, it's hard to find any trace of a carefree teen-ager there.

Most of the movies she sees are the ones she watches in hotel rooms when out of town for a competition. There are no friends outside of her gymnastics colleagues. No boyfriends and no sweets and no interest in either.

"I don't eat ice cream or cake, but we're allowed to eat pizza,says the 4-foot-7-inch gymnast who, during the school year, leaves Montgomery Blair High School an hour earlier than her classmates each day to start her training.

She'll eat a bagel on her way to the Gaithersburg gym. Work out until about 8. Come home and have dinner, do homework, and start it all over again the next day at 6:30 a.m. In the summer, she works out every weekday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then two evenings a week.

"It's a different childhood," says Mrs. Dawes, who does bookkeeping for her husband's refuse business. "I know she's missing out on a lot of things like junior high and high school dances, going to the movies with friends from school."

But Dominique, an honor roll student who will enter 10th grade in the fall, says she doesn't feel she's missing anything. "She's very serious about what she wants," says Ms. Hill, who has coached Dominique since the child walked into her Wheaton-area gym at age 6.

During her workouts -- they include practice on the balance beam, uneven bars, vault and, her best event, floor exercise -- she never smiles, never laughs, rarely even talks. For five hours straight, she is all handsprings and dismounts and push-ups. All work.

How many push-ups can she do? "As many as my coach tells me to do," she responds.

In fact, if it's hard to reconcile the herculean display of strength and power with the lean and tiny frame, it's even harder to reconcile Dominique's "on-stage" ebullience and charisma with her shy, serious nature.

"She was always quiet and active," says her mother who has no background in anything athletic. "No talking at all -- but a lot of moving."

Even as a baby, Dominique never crawled, but instead bounced around furniture, jokes her mother. She never walked down the steps. Always flipped down.

After some early ballet and tap lessons, Mrs. Dawes enrolled Dominique, then 6, and her sister Danielle, then 10, at the Wheaton-Marva Tots and Teens, a gymnastics school at Wheaton Plaza.

Coach Hill says she knew right away that young Dominique had the potential to be a great gymnast, but "didn't know if she had the mental discipline."

It soon became apparent that she had not only the discipline, but an appetite for competition and performance. "As she got better and better, and realized how good she could be, she got real competitive," says Ms. Hill.

Dominique won her first gold medal at age 9, and now the competitions are a way of life for the teen-ager, who has seen much of the country, and the world, with her coach at her side.

"I usually get pretty nervous, but I feel good about myself," shsays of her meets. "I've tried meditating before, but it really doesn't work."

"She's tough in competition," says her coach. "She's a very emotional gymnast. If she makes a mistake or is unhappy with something she's done, she has to fight from crying. But she goes for it. She's scared lots of the time, but she wants to do it."

Although they're both thrilled with their daughter's success, Mr. and Mrs. Dawes rarely travel with their daughter to competitions, nor do they watch her practices. "They're not real involved, but they're supportive," says Ms. Hill. "They're not gym moms and gym dads. And that's great. That's one of the biggest gifts her parents can give her."

But they're thinking of giving her another gift. The Daweses are ++ thinking of moving from the Silver Spring home that's been in the family for three generations to some place closer to the Gaithersburg gym.

After all, with the World Championships and Olympics now isight, the gym has become like a second home to Dominique. In order to be selected for one of the six coveted slots on each of those teams, the dedicated gymnast will have to move up several spots in the national ranking.

"I think she can," says her coach. "She's got everything it takes."

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