One broke a world record in swimming before her 16th birthday, the other became a national champion in gymnastics before she turned 18. Now, Anita Nall and Dominique Dawes find themselves in different struggles with the same goal: winning an individual gold medal in next summer's Olympic Games.
With the 1996 Summer Games scheduled to begin in Atlanta one year from today, Nall and Dawes are training for a second try, after their medal-winning performances in Barcelona, Spain, three years ago. As both chase their dreams, they are being asked the same, nagging question:
Will they be too old for gold?
Should Nall and Dawes make the U.S. Olympic team, their roles will be reversed from 1992. Nall, who has spent the past two years fighting illness and doubt, likely will be considered a long shot in the 200-meter breaststroke. Dawes, who last summer became the first woman gymnast in 25 years to win each of the five events in a single U.S. championship, likely will be among the favorites in Atlanta.
"Maybe people look at me more as a has-been or an underdog in the women's breaststroke," said Nall, who will celebrate her 19th birthday Friday. "There are lots of younger girls doing well. I haven't performed great in a while. But I think the time is coming when I will. I like being the underdog. Nobody is coming after me."
Said Dawes, who will turn 19 in November: "I take everything one day at a time. I just try to get ready for my next meet. I was proud to have made the Olympic team and help the team get a [bronze] medal. Right now, I have to qualify for other competitions. I'm not focusing on [the 1996 Olympics]."
It has been a long and sometimes unyielding road for Anita Nall since she broke the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke twice in one day at the 1992 Olympic trials in Indianapolis. As a result, the relative unknown from Towson Catholic High became a big-time star going into Barcelona.
Though most would consider her first Olympics a resounding success -- with a bronze in the 200 breaststroke, a silver in the 100 breaststroke and a gold in the 400 medley relay -- Nall came home a bit disappointed. And highly motivated for Atlanta.
"When you go to a meet that's said to be the biggest in the world, the Olympics, and you don't do your best time, it leaves an opening," Nall said after a recent workout at the Meadowbrook Swim Club, the Mount Washington facility where she trains under Murray Stephens. "I won a gold medal, but I didn't win an individual gold. That's what's pushing me right now."
That and Stephens, the hard-driving coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club team. Nall left Stephens last year and returned to her former coach, Ed Fraser, in her hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., for a little under eight months. She returned to Stephens in March.
Nall's departure came at a time when she was fighting constant colds and fatigue. After 10 visits to different doctors, Nall was found to have an iron deficiency. Her world ranking in the 200 breaststroke took a nose-dive. She went from second in 1993 to 13th in 1994 to 22nd currently. Once ranked as high as fourth in the 100s as well, she is no longer in the top 25.
"I went through a period where I didn't think I needed a rough coaching situation," said Nall. "I felt like I needed someone who was going to pat me on the back. It took for me to leave Murray to see what I was missing and what I needed for me to come back."
Asked if he thought Nall's departure last year was going to mean the end of their four-year relationship, Stephens said: "I thought we had to consider it. But in the back of my mind, I felt that if she wanted to be competitive again, she would be back here."
Because of her illness, which returned so often that she once said, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," Nall wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do. She tried going back to school, but wound up dropping three of the four courses at Lebanon Valley (( College outside Harrisburg.
"I don't like doing things halfway," she said. "That's why I'm not in school right now. I want to push myself as hard as I can."
Comeback is incomplete
With the help of a diet that now includes some red meat, Nall
seems to have her health problems under control. Because it still affects her stamina every so often, Nall can't push herself as hard as she -- or Stephens -- would like.
But she can feel things slowly coming back -- with the emphasis on slowly. Her time of 2 minutes, 32 seconds at the Pan Am Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in March earned her a bronze medal, but it was nearly seven seconds off her former world record (which has been broken since by Australia's Rebecca Brown). It was a sign that Nall's comeback is still a work in progress.
"The second time back, you know a lot more," she said. "You know a lot of things that can help you, but you also know a lot of things that can hurt you. When I was 15, I didn't have a mind. I
didn't think. I just did. Now, I think about things too much. I start to worry about whether I'm on top of the water. It can be a good thing. It can be a difficult thing."
Even swimmers without any health problems, particularly teen-age girls, often have trouble making comebacks because of weight gained or merely redistributed as they mature. But Dennis Pursley, the team director for USA Swimming, said that when he saw Nall at the Pan Am Games earlier this year, she didn't appear that different physically from the 15-year-old who made such a big splash at Indianapolis.
"I think as far as her stroke technique, which is the most difficult thing to maintain, she looked good," Pursley said.
Said Nall, who is now 5 feet 7 and 134 pounds, "My stroke has suffered a lot because I lost a lot of strength and conditioning."
Her lack of competition and results not only have cost Nall in the national rankings, but in her bank account as well. Though she will maintain her $20,000-a-year contract with Speedo through 1996, Nall has lost the monthly training stipends from USA Swimming. Partly as a result, she has moved back into her parents' home in Towson.
"A lot of times, I get frustrated easily," she said. "My expectations for myself are still pretty high. I want to do so good so bad."
Dawes eager for Games
In some ways, next summer's Olympics can't come soon enough for Dominique Dawes. To fill in the time between her training sessions at Hill's Gymnastics Center in Gaithersburg, Dawes has decided to become a part-time college student.
Having already been accepted at Stanford, with her admission delayed until fall 1996, Dawes plans to take nine credits at Maryland this fall. It is her first step toward life after gymnastics. Her current life began when Dawes started taking lessons from Kelli Hill in Wheaton at age 6.
"It got kind of boring just doing gymnastics and not having another schedule to do," Dawes said of the year-plus since her graduation from Gaithersburg High. "One of the women here [at Hill's] kept pushing me to take classes. I think it was a good idea."
So does her longtime coach.
"Everyone needs a diversion, something a little more exciting than soap operas in the middle of the afternoon," said Hill, a 1981 Maryland graduate and former gymnast there.
It was even worse when Dawes sustained a stress fracture in her left foot last December. She wound up being in a cast for six weeks, missing a couple of months of training and staying away from all competition, including the Pan Am Games, until late April. In her first full competition back, at last month's Budget Rent-A-Car Invitational in San Jose, Calif., Dawes finished second overall to Amy Chow.
Dawes is hoping to work her way back to where she was last summer, when she dominated the U.S. championships -- and Shannon Miller, who won five medals at the 1992 Olympics -- in Nashville, Tenn. But even she says that performance would be difficult to duplicate.
"That's something I don't have a chance of repeating," said Dawes, who will nonetheless get that chance at this year's nationals, beginning Aug. 16 in New Orleans.
Time away was healthy
According to Hill, the injury and time off were -- no pun intended -- a good break for Dawes. It gave others, including Dominique Moceanu, 13, of Houston, a chance to take the spotlight. "It gave her a break, without having to decline things for USA Gymnastics," said Hill. "It took a choice away for her."
It also has helped Dawes that Larissa Fontaine, a 17-year-old from suburban Chicago and a member of the 1994 world championship team, recently has come to Hill's Gym. A little daily competition, and company, isn't so bad in the often tedious months of training before the Olympics.
"I enjoy what I do," Dawes said of the seven-day-a-week, five-hour-a-day regimen that will be broken up a bit when she competes in a U.S. Classic meet in Birmingham, Ala., beginning Friday. "But it's pretty much like a job."
She is pretty good at her job. Despite the injury, which caused her national ranking to drop from first to 13th, Dawes is expected to be one of the stars of the U.S. team that will go to Sabae, Japan, for the world championships in October.
Kathy Johnson says she understands what Dawes is going through. Back when she was waiting to compete in the 1984 Olympics after being denied the chance as a member of the 1980 U.S. team that boycotted in Moscow, Johnson found herself looking to get finished with gymnastics.
"I've gotten the sense from Dominique that she's been tired [of training] for a long time," said Johnson, who, at 25, won two medals in Los Angeles and is now a gymnastics television analyst.
"As long as what's deep inside her is happy with what she's doing and wants to complete this journey, she'll be all right. If her only goal is to win a gold medal, there's going to be a problem."
The pressure will be much greater for Dawes than it was going into the 1992 Games, where she finished 26th in the all-around and was shut out of any individual medals. While trying to keep those thoughts from seeping into her daily routine, Dawes said ++ she is very much aware of what a gold medal might mean.
"If I go to Atlanta and do well," she said, "my life will be totally different. But I still want to have these same goals."
They include going to college and having a career that might put Dawes on a real stage, not merely flipping across floor mats or flying acrobatically. For now, she's trying to use her acting ability to score with the crowds and judges during her floor exercises.
Dawes said she needs another year to get ready for her second -- and certainly last -- Olympics. But her personal countdown has begun, the one that will end when the gymnastics competition is over at the Georgia Dome.
RTC "I think it feels pretty good to know that I have a year left," said Dawes, who has grown two inches and put on 16 pounds in the past year, so she's now 5-1, 104. "After that, I have a chance to start a whole new life."
So does one of her former Olympic teammates. But first Anita Nall would like to get part of her old life back