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Vaulting over Obstacles

Nicole Lowrie is one busy 12-year-old.

She swims, rides horses and plays Nintendo. And like a lot of girls her age, she likes to talk on her own phone line in her room.

"She is quite the little blooming teenager," said Nicole's mother, Cyndi Lowrie.

She also is quite the athlete.

On Saturday, she will be among the competitors representing Florida in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in New Haven, Conn. Nicole, who lives with her family in Largo, will compete for an all-around gold medal in gymnastics.

On her way to the games, she overcame many obstacles.

Nicole was born with a hole between the two upper receiving chambers of her heart. She also was born with a cleft palate that affects her speech. Later, attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities were diagnosed.

When she was 5 years old, she could not catch a ball or manage the coordination that scissors require. Then she was held back in second grade.

Last year, Nicole made the honor roll in her special education class three times.

She was given clearance to participate in the games by her doctor, James Henry, medical chief of cardiology at All Children's Hospital. Because of her medical problems, "She might tire out easily but she should be okay," he said.

Nicole started gymnastics four years ago. During the 1995 Florida State Indoor Games in Daytona Beach, she won the all-around gold medal by racking up three gold medals in floor exercise, vault and uneven bars, and a silver in the balance beam.

"She tends to have more fun than anything else and she loves to be social," said Nicole's father, Bill Lowrie. "But when it comes time to compete, she gives 100 percent concentration."

Nicole practices twice a week at the Apollo School of Gymnastics in Largo.

"I'm fairly tough on her," said her coach, Diana Beard. "But she's a hard worker."

Nicole's best event is the floor routine, Beard said. That event also happens to be Nicole's favorite.

"As soon as you learn it, it gets easier and easier," Nicole said. "But I have to practice a lot of times for the world games."

Nicole and her family found out last September that she would go to the world games. In order to qualify, athletes need to win at least one gold medal in a state-level competition. Their names are then placed in a drawing and the first 90 names to be drawn get to represent Florida in the games.

President Clinton, Maria Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Bolton are scheduled to appear at the games, Mrs. Lowrie said. Nicole is looking forward to meeting O'Neal.

"I'm one of his fans," Nicole said.

On Thursday, Nicole left for Orlando to join the rest of the Special Olympians from Florida.

Today, the team will fly to New Haven. The games will feature 7,200 athletes from 140 countries, and 500,000 spectators are expected to attend the ceremony.

Nicole's parents are thrilled at her success _ but they don't seem too surprised by it.

"We didn't raise her as a disadvantaged child," Mr. Lowrie said. "We provided her with the tools to do anything she wanted, and we let her do it on her own."