For three hours a day, six days a week, 16-year-old Kathleen Shrieves of Dayton flips and twists and pushes her body to defy gravity while executing difficult gymnastic maneuvers.
Her perseverance has earned the Howard County 11th-grader a spot among the nation's top 100 gymnasts. She is at a level just below the top 50 U.S. gymnasts who compete internationally, such as former Olympian Dominique Dawes of Gaithersburg.
But Miss Shrieves' goal isn't the Olympics or international competition.
"You know you're not going," she said. "You can see." Instead, the Glenelg High honors student keeps herself in top form for the colleges that already are calling the MarVaTeen gym in Rockville, where she trains.
"She will be one of the most sought-after gymnasts by colleges," said Gary Anderson, her coach and owner of MarVaTeen. "She will be the most sought-after gymnast in our gym's history."
Miss Shrieves hopes to get a gymnastic scholarship and study physical therapy or communications. She's looking forward to competing at the collegiate level.
Having a more flexible academic and practice schedule in college would relieve some of the strain. "It seems easier," she said, than spending a full day in school and then driving 45 minutes to Rockville for a three-hour training session. She does her homework while eating dinner about 8 p.m.
Her third competition of the 1996 season, the Sunshine Cup, also should help temporarily ease the strain of her nonstop practice schedule. Today, she leaves the piles of snow in Howard County for the warmth of the Bahamas, where the Sunshine Cup meet will be held.
Mr. Anderson sees Kathleen ranking in the top three in national competitions. Miss Shrieves said she just aims not to finish last in this season's competitions. The uneven bars and the vault are her best events, she said.
Last season, she made it to the Junior Olympics national finals in those two events. Her explosive power and a strong inner radar that lets her flying body know where to connect with the bars or vault usually earns her scores in the 9.4 to 9.5 range, Mr. Anderson said. A score of 10 is perfect.
But the teen-ager dreads the floor exercise. "It takes so much endurance," she said, because a gymnast must perform one tumbling run after another.
"I don't think people realize what it takes to do the routines that they do," said Pat Shrieves, Kathleen's mother. She and her husband, Paul, have supplied the support, funding -- and transportation -- that keeps their gymnast in motion.
Mrs. Shrieves joked that she put her daughter in gymnastics to keep her from killing herself. When Kathleen was 3, she said, she discovered the youngster perched atop backyard monkey bars. She had climbed up by herself, and by the time her mother reached her, she had found her way down.
The young daredevil grew into a 5-foot-2-inch, 110-pound powerhouse. Parents at the gym joke that their gymnast daughters may be tiny, but they wouldn't want to meet one of them in a dark alley, Mrs. Shrieves said.
She said her daughter's friends at school also joke about her strength. "Everyone in school says 'Don't fight with her.' "
Yet the demands of her gymnastic training make it hard for her to keep good friends at school, Miss Shrieves said. Her daily after-school practice also makes participating in school activities difficult. Spending time with school friends also is hard. Friday nights out with the gang wouldn't give her the energy she needs for Saturday afternoon practices.
Training also makes vacations for Miss Shrieves impossible. The longest she has been away from the gym was a week in 1994 when it closed for maintenance. "That was the worst," she said. All week long, it was "Mom, I'm bored." And her body temporarily lost its gymnastic swing. "I came back and I couldn't do anything."
Yet, giving up vacations and school activities doesn't bother her. "You always miss hanging out with friends, and I know I don't have a [varsity sports] letter, but it doesn't really matter, I have other things to do," she said.
Miss Shrieves remembers entering the gym as a 4-year-old, and how she admired the "big girls" working out. At that time, she just wanted to be one of them.
Mrs. Shrieves said she never thought her daughter would become one of the gym's top competitors. "You think, aw, she'll never get that far, and now she's grown up and she's made it."
Mr. Anderson agreed. "She's an outstanding gymnast," he said. "The outstanding gymnasts like Kathleen have very distinct personalities. They are very highly motivated. They are perfectionists, and they are physically and mentally tough kids."