She was a high school all-American swimmer last year as a sophomore, but Stephanie Bowers's continued success might well hinge on keeping healthy.

Bowers, from Yorktown High School, is trying a comeback from reconstructive surgery on her left wrist that rendered her land-bound for six months. Describing her difficulties as tendinitis complicated by the continued stress of working out, she is challenging her doctor's prognosis.

"He didn't know if I'd be able to come back and compete at the same level," she said, "but things seem to be working out okay."

Bowers's best events were the 100- and 200-yard backstroke, in which qualified her for the senior nationals last year. She also captured first place in the 200 and 500 freestyle at the Potomac District championships and first in the 200 and second in the 500 at the Northern Region championships. (Virginia has no state championships.) Her comeback, however, is limited to the 500 freestyle.

"Being out of the water for so long really set back my goals," Bowers said. "I haven't made the senior national cuts {qualifying times} so right now I'm just enjoying the sport. I realize how lucky I am to just be able to swim and be competitive."

With her father employed by the State Department, Bowers has moved around the globe and has learned that swimming can help bridge cultural gaps. "When I was swimming on the West German team," she said, "no one spoke English and I didn't speak very much German. It was difficult but somehow we managed to communicate with each other. I've learned a lot about human relationships and how to get along with people."

It was in Germany that she decided to get serious about swimming. "Up until then," she said, "swimming hadn't been that big a part of my life. Swimming with the West German team showed me what it would take to be good. After 3 1/2 years in West Germany I knew I'd have to practice at least six times a week and more when I got older."

Bowers now works out six days a week, two times a day. She's in the water with the Curl/Burke team at 4:45 in the morning and back in the water after school for an additional two hours of practice, covering about 8,000 yards.

With only about 5 1/2 hours of sleep each night Bowers says: "Swimming has taught me to make some tough decisions. I can't always go out with my friends like I'd like to. I've had to learn how to set priorities."

As if being a nationally ranked swimmer isn't enough, Bowers can also boast of a 5.1 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale), earning straight A's in advanced placement courses. She is also taking German 6 which, since the curriculum level only goes up to level 5, requires her to have private instruction.

Bowers credits her academic success to swimming. "If I didn't swim I wouldn't have the grades I do," she said. "I know I only have a limited time to do homework every night. I have to get to bed early because I have practice in the morning. Swimming has taught me self-discipline."

Bowers, who is thinking about majoring in political science, would like to swim in college.

"I'm looking into Stanford or maybe Princeton," she said. "I'd like to find a good academic school and a good swimming school. But ever since I was 4 years old I've wanted to go to Stanford. That will be my number one choice."

Bowers also was picked as one of 15 members of the Curl/Burke team to participate in an international meet in Luxembourg next month. Because of war in the Persian Gulf, their plans may change.