Dawes' golden life has few free moments GYMNASTICS


RICHMOND, Va. -- This has been a hectic time for Dominique Dawes, the sparkling 17-year-old acrobat from Gaithersburg who seven weeks ago claimed the title as America's best female gymnast.

On Aug. 27, Dawes became the first woman in 25 years to win five gold medals at the National Championships in Nashville, Tenn., winning the all-around competition and capturing first place in the individual balance beam, uneven bars, vault and floor exercise. Two-time defending world champion Shannon Miller finished second in each event.

There have been endless newspaper interviews. Segments on two morning news TV shows. Cover shots on magazines. Dawes, her brown hair always tied in a bun, always flashing that effervescent smile.

There is no time to hang around malls and eat dinner with her family. Go see a few horror movies. Take a real vacation.

It's either pose or train.

"During the last two weeks, I had to cut off everything and just let her concentrate on gymnastics," said coach Kelli Hill. "We've just barely had time to breathe. Now it's time to perform again."

Dawes will be in the spotlight tonight and tomorrow during the two-day World Team Trials at the Richmond Coliseum.

Dawes and the other top 16 finishers from the national championships in Nashville are competing for seven spots on the U.S. squad that will take part in the World Team Championships in Dortmund, Germany, next month.

Miller elected not to attend but could make the U.S. squad if her score in the national championships is good enough to place in the top five of the World Team Trials.

Dawes has a distinctive style, especially in the floor exercise, where she starts with a round-off and ends with a double flip in the tuck position, transforming herself from a gymnast to a trapeze artist while lifting fans from their seats.

Dawes says she can't hear the audience, but appreciates it.

"She's always been humble and doesn't get caught up in the hoopla," said Hill. "I was never worried about her practice habits, just her concentration."

Dawes practices two hours in the morning, five in the afternoon, six days a week in a two-story, red-brick building -- essentially a warehouse stuffed with mats and gym apparatus. The training is rigorous, but Dawes finds it fun, enough so that yesterday she strongly hinted for the first time that she will compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

If Dawes decides to go to Atlanta, the following fall she'll enter Stanford, where she already has a gymnastics scholarship. Dawes graduated from Gaithersburg High School last June with an A average.

"I hope to be there in '96," said Dawes, 4 feet 11 and 88 pounds.

She began her career at age 6, which means she often has heard the same question. "Was my childhood normal? I don't know," she said. "The only childhood I can remember was spent in a gym, so I guess I'm not really in position to know what is normal.

"But this is what I enjoy, so it has never bothered me that I was spending all my time in a gym instead of a playground," she said. "I'm proud of the things I have accomplished. Now I just hope to do better here than in the nationals and place high in the competition."

Dawes' dominating performance in Nashville has been matched only once before in the United States, in 1969, when Joyce Tanac Schroeder won every event at the AAU Nationals, which then were the national championships.

Hill said it was just a matter of time before Dawes would begin to dominate. In fact, Dawes in the past two years has been a botched vault away from possibly surpassing Miller and taking a world title.

In England in 1993 and Australia last April, Dawes missed her landing on the same vault. The vault was difficult enough that had she stuck both, she could have won.

Instead, Dawes, a member of the U.S. team that won the bronze medal in the '92 Olympics, finished fourth in '93 and fifth last spring.

"In '93, going for that vault was a gamble, but we opted to go for the gold," said Hill, a former University of Maryland gymnast. "We knew she didn't have the vault, but she couldn't win without it. Then in '94, she just kept replaying that scenario in her mind. She hadn't missed that vault the entire year till the worlds. When we got there, the past came back to haunt her.

"I knew she had the talent; it was very obvious," said Hill. "It was up to her whether she wanted to persevere and stay with it."

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