For most people, it's an ungodly hour.

Four a.m. The morning is hazily lit by street lights. Newspapers have yet to be dispensed at street corners. Traffic lights are flashing and the radio deejay is "going to rock you through the night."

But for Yorktown High junior Christie Smith, night has ended.

American University's campus is desolate as she pulls her car into the winding driveway leading to the school's swimming pool. By 6:30, when most people are about to begin their day, Christie Smith will have covered 2 1/2 miles of water, swimming 4,500 yards.

"Believe it or not, I actually enjoy getting up at that hour," said Smith, pulling tight her shoelaces as she sat relaxing before her morning workout. "My day is so full, the hardest part is deciding where to fit my homework in."

Smith is one of four All-America swimmers on Yorktown High School's team that will be competing in this weekend's Great Falls District championship at Wakefield pool. Juniors Megan McMorrow, Susan Dudley and Devon Hyde are the others. Largely because of them, the Patriots have a 6-1 dual-meet record; their only loss was to Langley, 91-81.

Smith doesn't practice with the team. Before and after school she trains with the United States Swim Team-Club Curl at Lee District pool. Many Yorktown swimmers do not practice at school, coming together on meet days to represent Yorktown.

Smith is home by 8 and in bed by 9:15.

"Christie is very goal-oriented," said USS Coach John Flanagan. "She has got a great feel for the water and has an excellent chance to become a world-class swimmer."

Smith is an All-America in the medley relay, 50- and 100-yard freestyle, and 100-yard butterfly. Last year, for the second consecutive season, she won Virginia regional and district championships in the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly.

"Last year at this point, she was a sprinter," said Patriots Coach Dorothy Dunbar. "She's now getting better at long distances."

Smith begins her laps, passing the Patriots' Kirsten Yauch. Yauch's strengths are the 400-yard individual medley and 100-yard breaststroke.

Yauch began swimming when her doctor advised that, due to a family history of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), ballet and swimming would be helpful. Although she never developed scoliosis, Yauch continued swimming and gave up ballet.

"When you're practicing swimming and putting in all the hours, you don't really want to stay with it," said Yauch, taking a breather in between laps. "But when you win or get your best time, you gain a satisfaction that makes it all worthwhile.

"Right now my biggest problem is my confidence. I don't have any. I don't always feel as though I'm in control. I have to be able to say: 'Hey, I've done enough work, I can win. I deserve this.' "

"I was just like that when I was her age," said Smith, 16. "You get more confidence with age and experience. When Kirsten (a 14-year old freshman) wants to do it, she can."

Although the thought of waking at 4 in the morning would send chills down most people's spine, Yauch said: "When I oversleep and wake up at 6, it feels as though I've slept in till noon."

Smith walks over, leaving a trail of water behind her. She pulls at the straps of her two bathing suits and lifts off her cap. The swimmers practice wearing two suits to increase drag and thereby strengthen the body. Also, since they put in hundreds of miles a year in the water and are constantly wearing out expensive suits, they can just "pile one on top of the other."

"People think we are so strange," said Hyde, who hasn't lost a race in high school. "They don't really understand swimmers and what we go through and why we do it."

Hyde captured the district and regional championships in the 200-yard individual medley last year.

Hyde said she lives every race 1,000 times before she swims it.

After it's over, she lives it again.

"Right before the race I start getting this really sick feeling in my stomach," she said. "Once I get up on the blocks, I can't even say whether or not my eyes are open or shut, I'm so deep in concentration. It's pure instinct.

"My first length, butterfly, I come out fast. I'm looking forward to switching. Then it comes. I switch from butterfly to backstroke. It's the best feeling -- relief -- one stroke down and three to go. Backstroke is my specialty so I glide.

"Then comes breast. I really have to work on that stroke. It makes my legs shaky. I try to stretch out. It hurts to breathe. Coming up to the turn, it doesn't get better. I come off the wall and pull out. I can't feel my fingers or my legs. Everything hurts. I pull out and kick. I'm submerged in water. It's silent. Complete silence. All I'm experiencing is the pain of my body. My lungs feel raw as I begin freestyle.

"At this point, if I'm alone, I coast. If someone is with me, I really work.

"Now I can see the wall. I reach out, I feel relieved. My first thought is: 'What was my time?' "

Smith has finished her morning workout. It's dawn. She will drive home, eat breakfast and head off to school.

"One of the greatest feelings in the world," said Smith, "is when you know you're doing something right and your adrenalin begins to flow and it feels incredible.

"When you swim, you're alone, you've done it yourself. You can say: 'I did that; it's my race.'

"Most people really don't understand, but swimming is so special."