Slow and steady is the description applicable to the progress Gaithersburg senior Susan Habermas has made over her nine-year swimming career.

Before any misconceptions are construed, Habermas' performances in the pool are anything but slow. She currently paces Montgomery County swimmers in the 200-yard freestyle (1:58.12), 200-yard individual medley (2:12) and 500-yard freestyle (5:08.69) and is ranked third in the 100-yard backstroke.

It is her upward progression that has been steady, so steady that some on her own club team were not aware of her prowess.

"When I was 14 it finally hit me when I made junior nationals that I was pretty good at this," said Habermas, 17. "It set some of the NTGs (National Training Group -- top practice group) back because some of them didn't make juniors. They were saying, 'Who's this person?' "

Since she began winter swimming at age 12, Habermas had been working out with the next fastest practice group. Normally, she explained, criteria for moving up into the NTGs was a regional qualifying time, which she had already accomplished.

The group, however, was so crowded that it wasn't until she was 15, and qualified for the junior nationals the previous winter, that the coaches obliged to include her with the faster swimmers.

The delay didn't bother Habermas-that's how she operates. She sets a goal, then bides her time as she works toward it. Since her initial foray into the world of big-time competition at the junior nationals, Habermas has qualified for that meet six times. She has increased her repertoire to four events, the 100 and 200 backstrokes and the 200 and 400 IMs.

Last year, she was unable to compete in the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championships (Metros), the area championships due to a shoulder injury. Although she said that was upsetting, she wasted little time this year making up for it.

In the second meet of the new year, Habermas swam the times that gave her top area billing in both the 200 and 500 freestyle events.

"My goal for Metros this year is to swim the I.M. under 2:10," she said. "Last summer at junior nationals, I just missed nationals by six tenths in the 400 I.M. At the end of January, there is a meet in Philadelphia that I'm going to where I hope to qualify for the nationals. I've been training for it since before the Christmas break."

Habermas says she enjoys swimming because of the challenge it provides in and out of the pool. She must fit in an entire day of school and activities along with the 3 1/2-hour chunk (not counting transportation) swimming requires.

"I like the challenge," she said. "It's a group thing, but also an individual one with your own goals and team goals as well. I loved it so much when I was little I can't think of not doing it. It's a normal routine now. I come home, watch one soap, then hit the books because I know I've got a two-hour practice. Afterwards I'm so tired I go to bed."

Her sister Patty, younger by a year and 10 days, also has provided Habermas with a challenge since they both began swimming for their summer team. But that was after Susan, then 8, quit following her first two days of summer practice.

"I hated it at first," she said. "But then I came back, and in my first meet, I won. I said, 'This is cool,' and decided to stick with it."

Habermas had to make good on her attempt to join the team. She had worn her parents down with two years of persistent insistence. "I wanted to start swimming because I loved to see people swimming on the team when I was little, I don't know why," she said. "My parents let our older sister Regina join and then next year all four of us joined."

Habermas' latest challenge is in the relatively virgin territory of the 400 I.M. Since she has been training in earnest for the past two years she has discovered a latent predisposition toward that event. In a 25-yard pool the event is 16 laps, requiring four laps each of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, in that order.

"When I first started the summer I was 8, I won freestyle and backstroke, but I loved backstroke," she said. "I went to the juniors in backstroke, but my I.M. has come along. I like the 400 I.M. and 500 freestyle more than other events. Now I'm gearing to being a 400 I.M.'er in college. My coaches want me to do distance. Myself, I'd rather swim 400 I.M., then a 200 I.M. It's not boring. The 200 is over too quick. In the 400, there are 100 of each stroke and it gives you a chance to catch up to people."