The image most people have of the female gymnast is that of a pony-tailed wisp of a girl doing back flips on the balance beam. Sixteen-year-old Racine Smith of Lanham presents an entirely different picture. Smith is a 5-foot-8, 137-pound bundle of enthusiasm who has particular problems with the balance beam because of her size.

Smith is also one of the few black gymnasts to excel nationally and is perhaps the best ever to come out of Maryland.

A junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Smith has developed rapidly in the past two years, winning the 1982 Maryland state championship and the 1983 AAU Junior Nationals. In May, she competed in the Class I National Junior Olympics in Colorado Springs, finishing third on the uneven bars and 22nd overall, but the 1983 season had been tough until then.

She failed to successfully defend her state title, finishing fifth, and then suffered through a subpar meet in the regional qualifying in Pennsylvania. Traveling to Georgia for another qualifying meet, Smith stood in 24th place after the compulsory events.

"Racine went through a period of doubting herself," Jerry Shrewsbury, her cocoach at the Royal T's Gymnastics Club of Crofton, said. "It's tough to stay motivated when you're the top gymnast at your club, and the pressure to repeat as state champion was too great. That second day in Georgia turned things around (Smith finished third after the optionals to qualify for Colorado), and the AAU meet was her best and her confidence flowed right back."

Smith didn't take up gymnastics until she was 13, after several years of dance and acrobatics. Shrewsbury, a former University of Maryland show gymnast, and his wife Carolyn, a former AAU gold medalist, had worked on the basics with Smith as early as 1977.

"She was 5-1 and ungainly, with long legs," Jerry Shrewsbury recalled. "I didn't even think of her as a gymnast. By 1979, we could see she had a lot of ability; she did things so naturally. The potential was there, but it's rare to see expectations come true."

For Smith, they did immediately as she qualified for the state championship in all four events (bars, beam, vaulting and floor exercises) in her first meet in October 1979.

"Jill Andrews (a Maryland senior) was probably our best gymnast," Shrewsbury said, "but Racine's better. She has a natural grace and tremendous strength. Her attitude is tremendous most of the time."

Because of her height, Smith said, "the beam's my weakest event. I always fall off. I like vaulting because it's quick and I like to flip, and I like 'floor' because I like to dance and tumble. I like the bars because I'm good at it, I suppose."

The bars pose a problem for Smith as she works toward her ultimate goal: the Olympics. The International Gymnastics Federation sets the bars at a height that is too low for Smith.

"Racine has the ability to be in the top 20 or 30 nationally and she's going to learn for another four of five years, but there's no way to work around it," Shrewsbury said.

Still, the Olympics are a year off. Smith must first work her way up the elite qualifying ladder, which culminates in the national championships, and then the Olympic Trials. Despite the fact that many gymnasts--including such stars as Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci--show declines in ability in their late teens, Smith and the Shewsburys aren't worried about age yet. They cited Kathy Johnson, who at 24 is still ranked in the top 10 nationally.

"I wouldn't be too old in 1988," Smith said. "First, though, I want to work on some new routines this summer, including a front double-back twist in the floor. I want to keep at it through college, and pro gymnastics looks like fun.

"I never thought I'd progress this quickly. Nothing is more important than gymnastics to me."