Somewhere, sometime, Germaine Payne may spend a week with more milestones in it. For now, though, this week will have to do. And it will do very nicely indeed.

Last Friday, Germaine was one of the stars of a gymnastics exhibition at the 19th Annual Summer Chapter Games of the D.C. Special Olympics. Four nights later, she marched onto the stage at Constitution Hall, accepted a diploma with a smile and graduated from Dunbar High School.

Only a few years ago Germaine Payne would have done neither of these things, because she is mentally handicapped.

Germaine would have been separated from the nonhandicapped population as a preschooler. She would have been told that sports are for "healthy" children, and that high school is reserved for those who can handle the work.

But because the D.C. public schools "mainstream" mentally handicapped students, Germaine has gotten an opportunity to handle a normal high school curriculum. She didn't get As at Dunbar (Cs and Ds were more like it). But she now has an educational credential that puts her in position for a good job and an independent life.

Special Olympics has given Germaine something different, but something worthwhile, too -- a hobby that has taught her the value of extra effort and the feel of success. Gymnastics "just makes me feel good in a special way," Germaine said.

That special way may be about to get even more special. Nineteen-year-old Germaine Payne is training hard for a trip to the International Summer Special Olympic Games, which will be in South Bend, Ind., beginning in late July. Germaine has been a good gymnast for quite some time. Now, with worldwide competition just around the corner, she has gotten even better.

"I've had to beat on her a little, but she's looking good," said Germaine's coach, Kathie Friese.

"Her confidence is better, too. I think she's still a little nervous about performing in front of a big crowd. But she's doing fine."

I've been following Germaine for several months as she prepares for Indiana. I have watched her develop from an uncertain vaulter and erratic floor exerciser into a competent performer at both events. I'll be in Indiana this summer to report on how well a local athlete does as she takes on hundreds of gymnasts from all over the world.

Germaine's mother, Claudia, says her 4-foot-11 daughter is "starting to get excited" about the trip and the chance to perform in front of hundreds of people.

"Usually, people ask me how Germaine's doing, and I say, 'Calm and cool,' " Claudia Payne said.

"She's not calm and cool any more."

Not that Germaine is swaggering. She knows that the opposition in Indiana will be much stronger than anything she has faced in her five years as a Special Olympics gymnast around Washington.

"She tells me, 'I don't know if I'm gonna win. The competition might be good. There'll be some kids from China. I'm just gonna do my best,' " her mother says.

Still, Germaine's best seems better all the time.

A month ago, Germaine would jump up and clasp the top bar of the uneven parallel bars -- and would start glowering. She didn't feel comfortable, and it showed.

Last Friday, Germaine zipped through a one-minute compulsory routine as if she'd been doing it her whole life.

Up to the high bar in one smooth leap. Flip the body all the way over, taking care to point the toes. Lower the legs delicately and gracefully onto the lower bar. Do a flip-over with elbows locked. Then a 1 1/2-spin around the lower bar and a dismount. No hitches. No hesitations. No mistakes.

Germaine's exhibition on Friday would have been a competition if any other accomplished gymnasts had shown up. But Germaine hasn't had any serious competition in local Special Olympics events for more than two years.

She is discovering, however, that that doesn't necessarily matter. Gymnastics and golf have this in common: Whether competitors show up or not, the primary person you're competing against is yourself.

Still, there are rewards even in exhibitions, and Germaine Payne got a loud reward last Friday night.

She was asked to demonstrate a squat vault. This is the event for the Evel Knievels of gymnastics. The athlete sprints down a long runway, catapults into space on a springy board, lands butt-first on a prop that looks like the back of a horse and does a somersault onto a mat. All of it gracefully. Supposedly, anyway.

Germaine took the supposedly right out of it.

Her approach was smooth, her liftoff was perfect, her bounce was timed perfectly and her flip was well controlled. When she stood up, the crowd of 75 was applauding heartily.

Germaine's expression seemed one of genuine surprise. "For me?" her face seemed to say. But then the applause got even louder, and she smiled. The question didn't need to be asked any more.