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For gymnast Dominique Dawes, the Summer Games can wait

At 4 feet 11, Dominique Dawes can barely see over the dashboard.

But that doesn't faze the 17-year-old world-class gymnast, who still has her learner's permit. She simply sits on her coat and drives her coach's 12-seat van like she drives herself in her sport _ completely focused.

"She likes to be able to be higher and see everyone else from the van," said her longtime coach, Kelli Hill. "She's a great driver."

Since earning a bronze medal with the U.S. team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Dawes has become more self-assured and has been able to see her own path in gymnastics. At the World Championships in November, she won silver medals for the uneven bars and balance beam and finished fourth overall.

"She has matured a lot over the last two years," Hill said. "She is doing gymnastics because she wants to and because she is setting rules for herself."

Rule No. 1 for Dawes: Don't talk about Atlanta.

"Before, I had a goal _ ever since I was 13 I wanted to go the Olympics," Dawes said. But now, she said, the 1996 Olympics are not in her plans.

"I want to compete in college," said Dawes, an 88-pound high school senior in Gaithersburg, Md. Hill isn't surprised that the No. 2 gymnast (behind Shannon Miller) on the U.S. team doesn't want to train for the long haul. After all, Dawes has been doing it for 11 years.

"I think it's very smart of her to take one year at a time," Hill said. "It just takes a great desire to train 35 to 40 hours all the time. Why make such a bold statement like that? She's playing the field."

"Right now, I'm just taking one meet and one year at a time," Dawes said.

Today's meet brings her to Orlando for the McDonald's American Cup, which features some of the top international senior and junior gymnasts. Men's world champion Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus is scheduled to compete, along with women's gold medalist Miller. (Although Miller did not arrive for the Thursday morning workout due to sprained muscles in her stomach, she was cleared to compete today.)

Dawes said she and Miller are neither close friends nor fierce rivals. "I don't go out trying to beat her, just compete the best I can," Dawes said.

Dawes lives with Hill, just as she did during the year she trained for the 1992 Olympics. It makes more sense, transportation-wise, they say. Dawes' parents and her 11-year-old brother live in Silver Spring, Md., 30 minutes from Hill's gym. She tries to go home on weekends, if her practice schedule allows.

"My parents just can't really drop what they're doing to take me to the gym all the time," Dawes said. Hill acknowledged a lack of involvement from Dawes' parents, but said it has helped her student succeed.

"In some ways, that makes Dominique be Dominique," Hill said. "She does what she does not because her parents tell her to get up every morning and set the alarm."

Dawes leaves the house at 5:45 a.m. with another gymnast, Mary Ann Esposito, boarding with Hill. After a two-hour workout, Dawes goes to school, then returns to the gym for a five-hour practice. All this before homework.

The spunky teenager will continue this schedule next year when she attends the University of Maryland, training for the World Championships at the same time.

After then, she'll make her decision about the Olympics. "It doesn't depend if I do good or bad, it's just how my body feels and if my mind is still into it," she said.

"I just get tired sometimes. But then I realize gymnastics has done a lot for me."

McDonald's American Cup

Who: Olympic, world champion and national team gymnasts from 18 countries, including the United States, Hungary, Russia, Romania, Canada.

Where: Orlando Arena.

When: 7 p.m. today and 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Format: Two-day all-around competition. Top eight men and women advance to finals on Saturday.

Who to watch: USA _ Shannon Miller, 1993 world champion; Dominique Dawes, 1993 world silver medalist; John Roethlisberger, 1992 Olympian. Belarus _ Vitaly Scherbo, '93 world champion. France _ Elodie Lussac, '93 Junior European champion.

Tickets: Call Ticketmaster at 287-8844 or Orlando Arena box office (407) 849-2050.