Demonized Dawes tries new approach Disappointing all-around alters gymnast's psyche

Atlanta Olympics

July 29, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA -- Dominique Dawes has removed the motivational epigrams that once decorated her room. No longer will her dark eyes be drawn to statements such as, "I wake up with a burst of energy and optimism."

The epigrams were her psychologist Carolyn Silby's idea, and they were part of efforts to help Dawes conquer her demons and finally perform her best in a major, all-around gymnastics competition.

Dawes wrote out the phrases and affixed them to lamps, walls and mirrors in her room in Knoxville, Tenn., during the national championships. She did the same in Boston at the Olympic trials. But the demons resurfaced at approximately 6 p.m. Thursday in the Georgia Dome, and, by Friday afternoon, the messages were gone. So were the congratulatory cards and balloons.

"Nothing left," she said.

Dawes, like every member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, has her gold medal. She played a major role in winning it last week, contributing more points to the final American total than anyone except Shannon Miller. But that was only part of what she had hoped to accomplish in Atlanta, only part of the reason she had deferred admittance twice to Stanford and put her still-growing body through four more years of intense training and effort after the 1992 Olympics.

"I don't think the all-around competition mattered more than team, but it was just as high as team," said Kelli Hill, who has coached and mentored Dawes since she walked into her gym in Gaithersburg at the age of 6. "She knew this was her shot. She hung in for four years to go after it. It was a heartbreak."

Heartbreak hit on the floor exercise, the apparatus that once defined Dawes. She used to begin with the longest tumbling series in women's gymnastics: one trick-packed diagonal across the mat followed immediately by another trick-packed diagonal.

It was an opening that underlined her strength and athleticism. But she and Hill both believed it was time for a fresh look, and after missing the end of last season with a variety of nagging rTC injuries, she returned to competition this year with a new floor routine.

In April at the world championships for individual apparatus in Puerto Rico, she stepped out of bounds on her second tumbling run and failed to advance past the preliminary round. On Thursday she was leading all competitors after two rotations but, on that very same tumbling pass, she felt herself heading out of bounds again.

Dawes tried to avoid that and came out of her front somersault a moment earlier than usual. But in trying to avert a minor deduction, she would end up paying a major price. Not only would she still step out of bounds but she would fall backward, and completely out of contention. The gymnast who had performed so precisely in the team competition was left sobbing on the bench as her score of 9.0 flashed on the scoreboard.

Nothing -- not meeting President Clinton after the competition; not listening to all of Hill's supportive words; not thinking of the gold she already had won -- would provide much consolation.

"She has been very emotional," Hill said. "The team gold made history. I don't think any of the girls realize at this time what it really means to our sport. I think they'll realize that more as time goes on. But I don't know if that will ever really cushion the blow of Thursday night for Dom. Talking to her, I said, 'Dom, there's nothing you can do about it. It's going to hurt now and 30 years from now. That's just the way it is, and it's over with, and we have to go on.' "

The Olympic all-around title is gone, but Dawes will have at least two, and probably three, more chances at an individual Olympic gold medal. After a 48-hour break, the gymnastics competition resumed last night with two women's event finals and three men's event finals. Competition concludes tonight with the remaining finals.

Olympic updates

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Pub Date: 7/29/96

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