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At 23, Maryland's Dawes rock-solid base for team

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - Dominique Dawes has played Broadway, starred in a Prince video and been to college.

She has a boyfriend, owns a home and gives motivational speeches to business leaders.

And in a sport still dominated by sprite-like teen tumblers, she's something of an old-timer at 23.

Somehow, some way, she has made it back, all the way back, to her third Olympics, where she is out to help the U.S. women's gymnastics team win a medal.

"Yes, I'm more mature and experienced, but I still get the jitters and nerves," she said.

In a deceptively rough-and-tumble gymnastics world, Dawes is a survivor, a member of the Magnificent Seven who shocked the world in 1996 to claim a team gold in Atlanta.

Five of the seven tried to climb back on the podium and grab places in Sydney. But for most, the trip ended in tears or injury.

Only Dawes, of Silver Spring, and Amy Chow, returned to the Games.

The rest of the American team is composed of Olympic newcomers, led by 18-year-old Elise Ray of Columbia.

In a competition in which the athletes from Romania, Russia, Ukraine and China are considered the elite, and Australia has a home-crowd advantage, the Americans will be hard-pressed to gain a medal, let alone another team gold.

They're no longer the Magnificent Seven, yet this is a compelling team that will take the floor when the competition begins here early Sunday morning.

"With this team, the only difference is the youth," Dawes said, comparing 1996 with 2000. "We're excited to go out there and win a medal for the country. We're definitely bonding."

But are they getting better?

"It has been a testing four years for us," said national team coordinator Bela Karolyi. "After the incredible victory the Olympic team gained in Atlanta, we had a lot of celebration. We celebrated a bit too long.

"From the highest-ranked team in the world, we came down to sixth place. That was a temporary situation. The team is strong. It's united. It's powerful. This is probably the most-talented team we've had in many, many years."

The American women have a rock-solid leader in Ray and steady veterans in Dawes and Chow. They also have something of an Olympic Cinderella in Tasha Schwikert, who left the trials the second alternate and earned an Olympic spot after Morgan White withdrew with an injury.

Schwikert broke the news by phone to her mother, who works in the craps pit at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. The gymnast heard the high-rollers high-fiving with her mom and learned that a collection was taken up among the workers to send her parents -who both work at the casino - to Sydney.

Now, that's an only-in-America tale.

So is the comeback of Dawes.

After winning gold in the team and bronze on the floor in Atlanta, Dawes joined her teammates and appeared on the Wheaties cereal box and toured the country in a gymnastics show. She also appeared in the Broadway hit, "Grease," and did a star turn in Prince's music video "Betcha By Golly Wow."

It was in February, while sitting with 500 others in a University of Maryland economics class lecture, that Dawes decided she wanted to go back to the gym.

"I didn't enjoy it," she said. "It was February. I wanted to stretch."

For Dawes, the hardest part of returning to the gym was getting in shape.

"Gymnastics shape as opposed to normal shape," she said.

Things were so bad, she took March and April off. But after a newspaper article appeared heralding her return to gymnastics, her coach, Kelli Hill, told her "get your butt in the gym."

"If I was watching the Olympics on TV, I didn't want to think, 'What if?' " Dawes said.

She's back in shape and enjoying performing her routines.

"It was a struggle, but it's good to know I'm here," she said. "I do enjoy it more."

Hill, who is the head coach of the U.S. team, said Dawes "had a hard time with the discipline of it all, the 5 a.m. wake-ups for the 6 a.m. practices, coming back in the afternoon to practice again. That's hard."

"She's 23. She has a life," Hill said.

But Dawes also had a yearning to compete again. With this team, she is prepared to fulfill a different role, trying to be the solid performer in the team competition. It'll likely be up to the younger gymnasts to go after individual medals in the apparatus finals.

Dawes is shouldering a lot of responsibility and pressure at these Games.

"I like to have stress and difficulties in my life," she said. "It makes me a stronger. I like to take the rough stuff."

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