Marylander's career began at McDonald's

VAULTING ONTO THE OLYMPIC STAGE

May 31, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

GAITHERSBURG -- She lives outside the Capital Beltway, far from the mainstream of American gymnastics.

To find her, you slice through Montgomery County on two-lane back roads weaving through a patch of suburbia that leads to a converted factory at the end of a road.

The evening is warm, unusual in the spring of 1992. The garage doors are open. Rock music pours out into the night. But inside, all you can see are kids. Fifty or more. Most of them girls. Tumbling. Soaring.

They call themselves "Hill's Angels."

At first, you can't find her because she looks like any other tiny teen-ager in a girls' size-12 leotard, until suddenly, she comes flying across a mat, all legs and arms, upside down one second, right side up the next, this vision of unleashed power finally landing with nothing more than a light tap and a broad smile.

Dominique Dawes is in the building.

"I don't feel special," she says. "I don't want to feel special."

But when the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials are held at the Baltimore Arena, Saturday through June 13, Dawes will no longer be able to be anonymous. In fact, the girl who is known around the gym as "Awesome Daweson," could emerge as a national star.

She has vaulted from a converted game room attached to a Best Western motel to the top tier of American gymnastics. In a sport where coaches are often Svengalis in running suits, she is guided by a bright, warm, 32-year-old woman named Kelli Hill. After a decade together their bond is so strong Dawes now lives in the Hill household, and the coach calls the gymnast "the daughter I'll never have."

At 15, standing 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches and weighing 80 pounds, her brown hair tied tightly in a bun, Dawes is coming of age in a discipline where puberty can spell doom.

She was fourth in the all-around at last month's Phar-Mor U.S. National Championships in Columbus, Ohio. Officially, the meet was worth 30 percent of the overall score for Olympic qualifying. Unofficially, the meet was all about first -- and often lasting -- impressions. When Dawes tied defending all-around world champion Kim Zmeskal on the optional floor exercise, and beat her on the uneven bars, she moved toward one of six spots on the American team at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

And to think, her career started by chance in 1982 at a McDonald's restaurant near the Wheaton Mall.

Dawes and her mother, Loretta, had come in for a hamburger and consolation after a tumbling class at a YMCA was canceled. While eating, they noticed groups of girls wearing leotards, asked where they had come from, and were directed to the motel next door.

There they met Hill, a gymnast fresh out of the University of

Maryland. A year earlier, Hill purchased the Wheaton MarVateens gym for $10,000 with no money down. Somehow, Hill managed to attend school and coach full-time, although she never received her degree in physical education. Seems she never could find the time to complete eight weeks of student teaching.

No matter. She didn't need a degree to coach, just boundless optimism and a workaholic mentality.

Designed as a game room, built over a parking garage, an A-frame roof crimping the corners, its back door leading to a swimming pool, Hill's first gym was hardly a place to nurture Olympic dreams. The floor exercise mat also was used as a beam dismount landing area, and a runway for the vault. Every time the kids grew another half inch, Hill would have to pull the vault farther from the wall so the tumblers wouldn't bang their feet on the ceiling.

"The place was most people's nightmare of a gym," Hill said. "But it was my open door."

And through it walked Dawes, who would train in this gym for nearly nine years. Almost immediately, Hill was taken by Dawes' flexibility, coordination and fearlessness.

"The first time I saw her I said, 'Hmm, what do we have here?' " Hill said. "She was all over the place. Very strong. Powerful. Willing to try anything. You get this little kid who is talented and you say, 'I know this kid can make it.' And people look at you and say, 'What are you talking about? What do you know? Who are you, anyway?' "

Together, the kid and the coach climbed the ladder of the gymnastics' establishment. The sport is divided into fiefdoms, with established clubs dividing the spoils of medals and invitations to international meets. To seize a piece of this jealously guarded turf required patience, talent and a -- of charisma.

Hill built her club into a regional and then national junior power. Dawes provided the star power. Her 17th-place finish in the national juniors in 1988 was just a preview. A year later she earned her first international trip to the Konica Grand Prix in Brisbane, Australia. And in 1990 she finished third at the national juniors.

"Three years ago, that was when I first thought I could make the Olympic team," Dawes said. "Everyone believed I had the potential. I thought I could change that potential and make it come true."

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