It was only a cheap, fake red rose, the kind you'd leave on a park bench and not miss for a second. But there was nothing fake about the gleam. It lit up Germaine Payne's eyes, and the harder she clutched the rose, the more the gleam spread.

"Congratulations to the athletes, our heroes!" said the man on the public address system.

As she heard that, Germaine's right hand went straight over her head, in the classic gesture of athletic triumph. The rose was still in that right hand. And the gleam was still in those wide brown eyes.

Nineteen-year-old Germaine Payne of Northeast Washington had just lived a dream that had been two years in the making. She had gone to South Bend, Ind., to compete in the International Summer Special Olympic Games. And she was coming home with the sort of glory that mentally handicapped young people never used to know.

Germaine won four ribbons and one bronze medal during three days of gymnastics competition at the University of Notre Dame. She got to attend a special lesson given by Olympic gymnastics champion Mary Lou Retton. And she was interviewed before millions of people on ABC-TV's "World News Tonight."

But the most enduring memory of Germaine's visit to Indiana was how it felt to perform with thousands of spectators watching -- and thousands of butterflies flapping around her insides.

Last Wednesday, the day of the gymnastics finals, Germaine was so nervous that she began the day by putting her leotard on backwards. Her parents, Claudia and Robert Payne, were not exactly as cool as cucumbers themselves.

"I got a tooth that's bothering me, and I know it's nothing but my nerves," said Robert, as he awaited the balance beam competition in Notre Dame's Athletic and Convocation Center.

"You sure you want to sit next to a whole bundle of nerves?" added his wife.

Her leotard appropriately turned around, Germaine posted scores of 7.40, 6.05, 7.05 and 7.95. Tens would have been perfect. Eights would have won. Germaine had been good, but not great.

In the evening session, she wasn't good or great.

"6-6-5," read the scoreboard, after Germaine had tumbled and leapt through a floor exercise routine. She followed with 5.05 on the uneven parallel bars, and 6.95 in vaulting. Clearly, there would be no gold medal on this day.

But winning is not a word that Special Olympics defines in a conventional way. The program stresses that every competitor wins, whether he or she finishes first or 101st.

The idea is that mentally handicapped children should learn to strive, to compete and to hear the roar of the crowd. Perhaps they will transplant those memories and feelings to other areas of life.

Which is why Germaine scoffs when I ask her if she is disappointed with her showing.

"I did as well as I did," she said. "I'm not disappointed." Her set jaw silently adds that she is determined to do better the next night, in the all-around finals.

"I wouldn't tell her this," confides Kathie Friese, Germaine's coach for the last two years, as Germaine warms up for the all-arounds. "But if she hits it tonight, she could win a gold."

Germaine looks around at the 8,000 cheering spectators. She flexes her hamstrings. "I'm not nervous any more, like I was yesterday," she declares.

Whereupon she begins her balance beam routine by falling off the beam.

She recovers to post a score of 7.40 -- not tremendous, but considering the fall, not bad at all. "Her night?," I write in my notebook.

Germaine backs the 7.40 with a 7.75 in floor exercise and a 7.55 in vaulting. Kathie hugs Germaine and smiles. The crowd gives Germaine its heart: "Yay, nice vault!," and "Way to go, Germaine!"

The uneven parallel bars is Germaine's final event. She grabs the lower bar with confidence, and begins to whirl. Legs up top. Around and tuck. Swing and onto the upper bar. Spin and dismount.

But the judges frown. They tinker with their pencils. They hand the score slip to the scorer. And out comes the bad news: "5-0-5."

There will be no gold for Germaine on this night, either. A girl from Oklahoma takes the grand prize in the all-arounds. Germaine stands two steps to the girl's left on the awards stand, on the step marked "4." She has won a white ribbon for finishing fourth. But the medals and the flashbulbs are aimed at others.

Then the award-giver hands Germaine her red rose. And suddenly, two years of raw palms and flowing sweat and cold car rides home from Wednesday night practices are not in vain.

Says Kathie Friese: "I think she did the best she could, and that's what she wanted."

Says Robert Payne: "Worth it? Of course it was."

Says Germaine: "I did okay. I feel very happy."

She may not have won, but she grew. That is why Special Olympics is genuinely special.