GYMNASTICS IS a sport of endless fine-tuning, with each pike and
toe-point carefully calibrated and rehearsed until it seems second
nature. That muscle memory is put to its severest test during
competition, in which judgments are rendered to three decimal places
and one misstep can mean the difference between a medal and misery.
So in April 1993, 16-year-old Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md.,
stood poised near the end of a 75-foot runway, back arched, intensely
focused, about to attempt the first of two vaults that might hurtle
her into the lead at the world championships in Birmingham, England.
Her chosen vault was a Yurchenko layout with a 1 1/2 twist -- a
maneuver she had scarcely even practiced.
Dawes could have tried her usual Yurchenko layout full, but its
degree of difficulty would probably not have been enough to propel
her past the leader, teammate Shannon Miller. So without hesitation,
Dawes opted for the dicier dismount. ''Going for that vault was a
gamble,'' recalls her coach, Kelli Hill. ''We knew she didn't have
it, but she couldn't win without it.''
What happened next would color Dawes's career: Her gamble failed.
She took a large step on her first landing, then fell on her second
and eventually tumbled into fourth place. But without risk there can
be no reward. Four months and more than 500 hours of practice later,
Dawes edged Miller to finish first in the vault at the National
Gymnastics Championships. The following August, at the 1994 nationals
in Nashville, she struck gold again, not only in the vault but also
in the balance beam, floor exercise, uneven parallel bars and
all-around, becoming the first gymnast to make that clean sweep at
the nationals in 25 years.
It shouldn't be surprising that defeat elevated rather than
discouraged Dawes, a 4 ft. 11 in., 88-pound bundle of sinewy muscles
and steely nerves. She began her career at six, under Hill; by nine,
she was preparing for meets by writing ''determination'' in crayon on
her bedroom mirror. ''I was amazed that she even knew how to spell
it,'' says her father, Don. Despite tendinitis in both ankles, Dawes
competed for the U.S. at the 1992 Olympics, in Barcelona, finishing
26th in the all-around. At Gaithersburg (Md.) High, she was
sufficiently focused to juggle 35 hours of training a week with
homework in honors English, precalculus, physics and trigonometry.
Dawes graduated with an A average and earned a gymnastics
scholarship to Stanford (she has deferred her admission while she
continues her training).
While headline writers have labeled her ''Dawesome,'' she
describes her own style as ''dynamic.'' It's an adjective that
scarcely does justice to her routine in the floor exercise. To the
tune of Malaguena, Dawes covers the diagonal of the 40-by-40-foot mat
twice in the span of 10 seconds, performing a series of flips,
round-offs, whip-backs, handsprings and double somersaults without
pause. ''I can't believe she can do it,'' Stanford coach Breck
Greenwood says. ''There are 10 tricks in that line, and the very last
one is a 2 1/2-twist punch front that, by itself, is pretty hard.''
Dawes will be 19 when the Atlanta Olympics roll around in 1996.
That is old for a woman gymnast, but she is hoping to compete. After
all, Dawes has taken chances before in her quest to reach the top.
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1995 issue