Since seventh grade, Caitlyn Jones has walked the hallways of Lake Braddock Secondary School anonymous to most of its 4,000 students. She says little in class. She eats lunch with a handful of friends. She attends school dances stag. In a lot of ways, she's the person most people are in high school.
But she's not.
When the final bell rings, Jones, 17, rushes home, gulps down a snack of yogurt or oatmeal and heads to the Capital Gymnastics National Training Center in Burke.
There, she tumbles her way into the spotlight a few times each evening. Her parents and friends cheer and yell her name. Boys put their arms around her.
In "power tumbling," as her sport is known, athletes run and flip and spin and twirl in the air -- a seconds-long performance in which each second and move matter. "I just think about my path before I go," Jones said.
This week, her path led to Germany, where she will compete today in the World-Age Games, tumbling's answer to the Olympics. Most of the kids at school don't know.
School has always been tough for Jones. Before kindergarten, she was told she had an "auditory processing deficit," which caused her to confuse instructions. During class, she must sit in the front row, and she needs extra time to take tests. In achievement-conscious Fairfax County, Jones shared none of her classmates' enthusiasm for comparing grades. She toiled hours each night just to pass. Her mother hired tutors.
And then there was her other life. At age 8, she asked her parents to enroll her in gymnastics. Jones learned bars, balance beam and tumbling, but it was tumbling that made her coach take notice.
Over the next decade, Jones practiced a few times a week, then every day after school. Her father, Sam, a doctor, and her mother, Carol, a cardiovascular technician, became part-time cheerleaders, part-time chauffeurs. They never pressured their daughter to excel, satisfied with ribbons and medals that placed her fourth, fifth or 10th. As they did with her academics, they told her to do her best.
Over the summer, Jones's worlds unexpectedly met. She enrolled in a remedial class to study for the Standards of Learning test in English, which she failed last spring and would have to pass to graduate next spring. Days before the class started, Jones placed eighth in the Sacramento trials for the World-Age Games, qualifying for the second round, which would take place in Colorado a few weeks after the Aug. 6 English test. Now she had two goals in sight, and both felt out of reach.
On the English test, Jones would have to score 400 out of a possible 600. Her previous score was 384.
"We just have to work on your confidence," teacher Orlean Anderson said the first week of class. Her job was to teach test-taking strategies. Although she did not like saying so, she told Jones and her two classmates that they did not have to know or understand everything to figure out the answer.
Don't read the whole passage first -- skip to the questions, Anderson said. Don't choose answers with words you don't recognize at all, and use mnemonics to remember definitions.
Jones had trouble distinguishing between "antagonist" and "protagonist."
"Think of an ant that stings you," Anderson said.
"That helps," Jones said.
Anderson also gave them a meditation exercise, telling them to clench their fists, grit their teeth and hold their breath.
"Now release it," she said. "You see yourself taking that test. You see yourself succeeding on that test. The relaxation helps you. Relaxing is a way to feel confident."
At the gym that same week, Jones's coach, Sergio Galvez, gave her a similar task. He told her he had been named coach for the U.S.A. power tumbling team at the World-Age Games. "It would be sad if I go and you were not there," he said. "You've got to start believing in yourself."
That can be hard for children such as Jones.
"She questions whether she heard the teacher right," said her mother, Carol Jones. "It's enforced her to be shy. . . . She's had to settle for a C after doing more work than an A or B student. That's tough to take your whole life."
On the day of the retest, Jones tried to remember the confidence exercise. She tried to remember the difference between a simile and a metaphor. She was the first to hand in her test, an hour and a half after she had started.
"It was easy," she said, and then she headed for the gym to practice her Colorado routine: roundoff, five whips, back handspring, double tuck, roundoff, five whips, back handspring, double pike.
"Faster," Galvez called.
Jones rose gingerly after landing with a thud on the soft mat.
"How you feeling?" the coach asked.
"Tired," she said.
"Work on your whips," he said.
It was early August when he noticed a change in her. "She always had the fear of not making it," Galvez said. "It's a big step for her to start believing. Everybody started telling her she was good. That got to her head."
In late August, 120 athletes gathered in Colorado to vie for 77 spots on the USA tumbling and trampoline teams for the chance to go to Germany. Four girls from Jones's age group would make it.
Before her turn, she gave herself a pep talk: "I've done this so many times. Don't give up on yourself." She thought about her path . . . and went.
Landing her last move, Jones knew it was the best performance of her life: For the first time ever, she placed first.
When school opened a few days later, Jones did not mention her upcoming trip to Germany. But she did stop at her guidance counselor's office: Any word on the English SOL?
Counselor Malicia McLenny looked through her papers. The scores were not back, but the testing company had sent a list of students who passed, and Jones's name was on it.
Jones smiled and prepared to leave. But she had told McLenny about the tumbling essay she planned to write for college applications, so McLenny asked.
"I made it," Jones said.
"Give me some more!" McLenny exclaimed. "I want to see pictures!"
The letter with her exact score -- 430 -- arrived last month, and only then did Jones believe she would graduate. Now she wants to raise her 2.7 grade point average to a 3.0 in hopes of getting into George Mason University.
She left for Germany last week. The days before her departure were filled with packing and practice and the vicissitudes of school life: to go to homecoming alone or skip it? Saturday night, she went to the dance with friends -- just like any teenager.
To follow Caitlyn Jones's competition, log on to http://www.usa- gymnastics.org/tt/.