Going down the back stretch on the first lap, Carolyn Hughes was running easily in third place, her knees pumping, her arms churning. "She looks good, she looks real good," said her coach, Joe Fisher, as he watched from the top row of the bleachers. "Come on, Carolyn!" he bellowed, like a coach who thinks his athlete has a chance to win.

But as she passed the halfway point, Carolyn began to slip back -- third place to fifth, fifth to seventh, seventh to eighth. Her head bobbed from side to side. Her stride shortened. "The fatigue's starting to get her," said Fisher.

As Carolyn neared the finish line, rubberlegged, in ninth place, Fisher didn't bellow any cheers. He just said softly: "I guess we've got a lot of work to do."

Less than a year ago, as a junior, Carolyn Hughes of Catholic University was the top Division III 800-meter runner in the country. She won the national championship at Naperville, Ill., covering the distance in two minutes, ten seconds.

But on a cold Saturday afternoon late in March, Hughes began her senior season at the Towson State University Invitational in what she later called "pretty awful" fashion. Her time was 2:25.4 for the 800 meters. In track, if you're off your championship form by 15 seconds, you're off it by a country mile.

Still, Joe Fisher doesn't call Hughes the best athlete he has ever coached for no reason. She overcame her chosen major last year, and by the time she returns to Naperville in May, Fisher suspects she might have done so again.

What's to overcome? Well, Carolyn Hughes is a nursing major.

"What does that mean? It means she's on her feet starting at six in the morning for six hours a day two days a week. And that's before all the classes and the studying.

"It's very, very hard to be a top athlete when you're as tired as Carolyn is. Hey, I can't train her hard more than two days a week. At the big schools, she'd be training every day all year long."

How small a school is Catholic U. when it comes to women's track? About as small as small gets.

Fisher isn't a full-time coach (he teaches middle school in Howard County to make ends meet). The team has no equipment budget (Fisher pays for replacement spikes out of his own pocket; the athletes share shoes). There are no training table meals, no summer jobs offered by star-struck alumni and most significant of all, no athletic scholarships.

"You hear the phrase all the time," says Fisher, "but we really are scholar-athletes."

That was why CU was so attractive to Carolyn Hughes when she was a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School four years ago.

"I felt at CU I could be part of the team," said Carolyn. "It was a challenge. And it wasn't so bad that so few people knew about track. People in the stands kind of make me nervous, actually."

Is she ever treated like a national champion at school? "Other than people who play sports, I don't think anybody knows what's going on," Hughes replies. Any bitterness about that? "Only because I think a lot of it is that we're women. The men get more money and more publicity, even though neither of us is treated that highly. Sports are not too big a deal at Catholic."

Nor are sports excuses. Ask most athletes why they ran poorly, and they'd hide behind pulled hamstrings and moons that weren't in the seventh sun. Ask Carolyn Hughes, and she will admit that she spent the previous week on the beach at Fort Lauderdale.

"It was the only time I ever did that. I didn't even like it that much. And now look what it's done to me," she said, with a chuckle and a wave toward the Towson track.

But by May 24, when it's time to return to Naperville, "I should be ready," said Hughes. "It'll be a good lesson in discipline to get there, but discipline is what running is all about."

Could the Olympics loom after Naperville? "I'd definitely have an interest," said Hughes. "There are so many kids that are about the same as me. I'm willing to do the work. Why not?"