Dawes awesome again Gymnast: A healthy, more confident Dominique Dawes is the senior member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team heading for Atlanta.

July 14, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG -- She is no longer the shy little girl from Montgomery County who seemed younger than her age, no longer the latest in a recent line of America's pixie gymnasts.

She is no longer the 15-year-old who made her first Olympic team or the 17-year-old who won her first U.S. championship.

Dominique Dawes is all grown up, with one place left to go before she calls it a career: Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Recovered from the injuries that sapped her confidence and sidelined her for last year's world championships, rejuvenated by the months she spent going to classes and living in a dorm at the University of Maryland, and very much relieved to be finished with a nerve-racking but successful performance in the recent Olympic trials, Dawes has reinvented herself.

Four months shy of her 20th birthday, she is "Awesome Dawesome" again.

"I'm trying to show that I'm confident," Dawes said recently, on a lunch break between workouts at Hill's Gymnasium, her home away from home since she started taking lessons from longtime coach Kelli Hill in Wheaton when she was 6. "There've been times in my career when I haven't been so positive, mostly when I've been hurt. But this is the healthiest I've been in a long time."

It has been a constant battle, this conflict between the perfectionist and the performer. There were times when she won, as happened at the 1994 U.S. Championships in Nashville, Tenn., where she upset reigning U.S. and world champion Shannon Miller in the all-around competition and swept the event finals. And there were times when she lost, when her body wouldn't let her do what her mind was telling it, when she seemed to be going through the motions.

The lowest moment came last November when Dawes, recovering from stress fractures in her wrist and foot, stayed home while her U.S. teammates were in Sabae, Japan. They would finish third in the world championships without her.

"Kelli and I talked a lot about what it would take for me to get back and make the Olympic team again," said Dawes. "I had to be strong. I was determined not to go out that way."

With the confidence she gained from Hill in the countless hours they spent in the gym, with the positive thoughts she took from her once-a-week sessions with Washington sports psychologist Caro- line Silby, and with the experience of seven years on the highest level of the sport, Dawes began the final push back to the top. Based on what she did in Boston at the Olympic trials, where she edged Kerri Strug for the top spot among the 14 who competed, it would not be a stretch to say that Dawes has a chance to medal when the compulsories begin a week from tomorrow at the Georgia Dome.

Ever the team player, Dawes said she is more concerned with the performance by what many consider the strongest group of female gymnasts the U.S has ever sent to the Olympics. She knows her role in Atlanta will be vastly different than it was in Barcelona, Spain, where she finished 26th overall for a team that won the bronze medal. She is the oldest member of the team and, given the reception she got from the crowd at the FleetCenter a couple of weeks ago, perhaps the fans' most popular performer.

"I think people will be looking up at me," said Dawes. "And I don't want to be looking down on myself."

There she goes again. Dawes isn't the first athlete to go through this emotional tug-of-war. Her problem isn't so much a lack of self-esteem -- something well-chronicled with some young women in the sport -- as it is merely a struggle to perform under pressure. Early in her career, when expectations weren't so high, Dawes had little trouble. But once she stepped into the spotlight by making the Olympic team in 1992, it proved to be an uphill fight nearly every time.

Weighted down

"Going in as the underdog is so much easier for most athletes than going in as one of the favorites," said Silby, a former ice skater who competed for the United States in national and world championships in 1983 and 1984, and finished 10th in the 1984 Olympic trials. "She was weighted down by the expectations she felt she had to live up to, things that were out of her control. When you feel worried about messing up, you go out there feeling tentative."

The doubts came when Dawes would make the slightest mistake, whether it was noticeable to the judges or not.

"If she made a little error, she wouldn't be able to continue," said Hill. "She would just stop and think, 'The routine's over.' The most time we've spent is working on her ability to recover. Now if she makes a mistake, she just goes on."

Said Dawes: "In school, if I made a mistake, I'd say, 'Oh, that's OK,' and I'd work it out. But in gymnastics, if I made a mistake, I would think I'm not good enough."

It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the injuries would

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