Gym Dandy

updated 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN DOMINIQUE DAWES WAS just 9, she psyched herself up for gymnastics meets by taking a crayon and writing the same word over and over again on the mirror in her bedroom. "I was amazed that she even knew how to spell it," says her father, Don, "but it worked." The word that little Dominique wrote with such studied determination was..."determination."

Now that she is 17, all that youthful drive is paying off. In August she swept the National Gymnastics Championships in Nashville, taking the gold medal in all four events—the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise—as well as the all-around gold, a feat that no one, not even the fabled Mary Lou Retton, had been able to accomplish since 1969. In the process, Dawes dethroned 17-year-old Shannon Miller, the reigning queen of U.S. gymnastics and set herself up for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as well as for the World Team Championships next month.

The middle child of Don Dawes, a health-product salesman of Silver Spring, Md., and his wife, Loretta, who separated last year, Dominique was guided toward gymnastics by her parents as a means of channeling her energy. "At 4 or 5," says Don, "she was running around like the Road Runner." Kelli Hill of Gaithersburg, Md., Dominique's only coach, spotted something in her hyperkinetic new student. "There are other people with God-given ability," says Hill, "but it takes a very special person to pursue it day after day."

When Dominique was preparing for the 1992 Olympics, where she won a bronze team medal, she moved in with Hill and transferred to a nearby high school so she could be available for the grueling 7 hours of daily training. Now that the honor-roll student has graduated, she is back in her mother's home, deferring for a year her schooling at Stanford, where she has an athletic scholarship. "I want to train until '96 and see what comes," she says.

She doesn't have to write on the mirror for inspiration any more. All she has to do is look in it.

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