Craig Dies of Eleanor Roosevelt, Teri Messenger of Bowie and Friendly's Alisa Hess and Mark Henderson are among the top age-group and high school swimmers in the area.

Yet, they must talk wishfully of maybe someday receiving a letter for representing their school in the sport to which they have dedicated much of their lives. For now, high school swimming is conducted only on a club basis in Prince George's County.

"It's just got to become varsity," said Dies. "Montgomery County's been swimming as a varsity for six or seven years now. It's ridiculous PG is behind.

"They say they have no money, but the swimmers are all paying for it themselves anyway. They say somebody will get hurt, but how many football players get hurt? The swimmers pay $50 a year and swim before school; the school has nothing to do about it. It doesn't make sense."

Dies rises at 4 o'clock every morning to make practice at 5 at White Oak-Colesville. He swims upward of 200 laps or 5,000 yards during an hour and a half, then goes to school. After school, Dies has about half an hour before he returns to White Oak for the two-hour evening session at 5:30. He adds another 7,000 yards or more before he goes home to eat and collapse in bed.

That scenario is repeated any number of times throughout the county; only the faces are different.

Dies, 17, has translated that training into national exposure. Dies first qualified for the Junior Nationals in the spring of 1983; he has made an appearance in each Junior National meet since then. His most recent trip, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last summer, netted Dies 11th place in the 200-meter individual medley.

As a 14-year-old, Messenger was invited to the All-Star Zone meet as one of the top two butterfly swimmers in the Potomac Valley region in the 13-14 age group. She won the 100-yard butterfly and in April 1983 qualified for the Junior Nationals in that event plus the 100 backstroke. Last year, Messenger, now 17, added the 400-yard individual medley to her national repertoire.

Hess, 17, rises at 3:40 every morning to make it to the Wakefield pool in Fairfax by 5:15. During her two two-hour practice sessions a day, she figures she covers about 15,000 yards.

Last year Hess won the Metros 500-yard swim with a 5:03.2, a few seconds slower than the time that placed her among the top 20 in last spring's Junior Nationals. Along with the 500 freestyle, Hess has made national cutoff times in the 100 and 200 backstroke, 100, 200, 400, 1,000 and 1,650 freestyle events, and 400 I.M.

Henderson, the youngest of the four at 15, has, like the others, made numerous appearances at board of education meetings to push for varsity status. Last indoor season, Henderson swam to top-16 rankings in four events in the age 13-14 boys. In his top showing, he was the fourth-fastest 13-14-year-old in the nation in the 100-yard backstroke. He too has made Junior Nationals, his first being last summer at Fort Lauderdale.

In the Prince George's club-level high school swimming setup, the athletes practice two to three one-hour sessions a week, hold scheduled dual meets and provide officials, all at the swimmers', or more accurately, at the parents' expense.

County schools first started forming teams around 1978. A privately funded "county" meet has been in existence for six years. And after much politicking and lobbying by parents, the school board recognized swimming as a club sport in 1982.

That's not enough, say proponents of swimming as a varsity sport. They feel there are just too many quality swimmers in the county to go unnoticed by their peers and teachers for their talents.

As a case in point, two years ago Bowie's girls astounded Washington-area high school teams by winning in the Metros. The meet is the area championship, drawing public and private school teams from Maryland, Virginia and the District. The winners in each event inevitably make the all-America list.

When Bowie walked off with the girls trophy, it had a small group of nine members. Permission was granted to participate in the meet shortly before the entry deadline.

"We were really stunned we got it; we didn't expect to win that year," said Messenger, a sophomore then. Messenger took third places in the 100-yard butterfly and 100 backstroke, and swam a leg on the 200-yard medley relay.

"A lot of people were surprised," she said, "but I don't think they knew how big a win that was for us. Since there were no varsity letters, I think a lot of people dropped back; we got no recognition. After that we thought we'd get some. We went to so many meetings to make it a letter sport and it always failed. I think a lot of them lost interest. Other sports get recognition, so why swim?"

"There is a large force that wants swimming to become varsity," said Francis Thomas, supervisor of high school athletics for the county. "A lot recognize the value of the sport, but the cost factor is the thing that seems to cause the board members concern. Are we ready to assume the high cost of putting in another varsity program? I'm not saying that later on it might not become varsity."

That's all the swimmers can hope for.