She is only 5 feet 1 and weighs a mere 97 pounds, but gymnast Denise Fierro has some big ambitions.
"I would like to get a college scholarship to study to become an orthodontist and I would like to compete in the Olympics," Denise said recently at her home in Covina, where she lives with her parents and younger sister.
The 13-year-old eighth-grader at Royal Oak Junior High School will have to wait awhile to join a sorority, but a potential Olympic appearance could be as close as the 1992 summer games in Barcelona, Spain.
Denise is one of the rising stars in American gymnastics. She won a gold medal in July as a member of the winning team at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Oklahoma City and made the 16-girl junior national squad by finishing 11th overall in the competition.
Her goal is to be one of the top three in the division by next year and then jump to the senior national team. To make that happen, Denise trains nearly 30 hours a week--including as long as eight hours a day during the summer--something that is not exactly inexpensive.
Richard Fierro, a manager at a luggage-manufacturing company, said it can cost up to $20,000 a year to develop the talents of gymnasts such as his daughter. Some of the travel and boarding expenses are paid by a booster club and a private fund set up for Denise, while others are covered by the U.S. Gymnastics Federation when it sanctions an event. The rest is picked up by Fierro and wife Bobbie, who works a part-time job to help with the bill.
And the outlay of cash notwithstanding, all those heavy doses of tumbling passes and twisting vaults in the gym can have other side effects, too.
"She doesn't even have a social life with us, let alone with friends," said Bobbie Fierro, who splits long hours driving Denise to the gym and 10-year-old Christine, a black belt in tae kwon do karate, to little league baseball practices or games.
"We go out to dinner on Fridays and she never goes," she said in reference to Denise, who often trains into the night on Fridays.
But this is not to say Denise avoids food. Before a recent late-afternoon training session at the Charter Oak Gymnastics Center, she consumed a hearty meal.
A few minutes later, clad in a black-striped pink leotard that accentuated her Nadia Comaneci-like physique, Denise was spinning on the uneven parallel bars and landing back aerials on the balance beam.
No judges were around, but Denise was putting on a good show for a photographer snapping her picture.
"She has audience appeal; she plays to the crowd," said Beth Rybacki, who with her husband, Steve, coaches Denise and who in 1980 made the U.S. Olympic team that never got to Moscow because of the American boycott.
"She is coming up very fast. All you have to do is tell her things once and she's got it. And she has no fear factor. That just doesn't come along every day," added Rybacki.
That carefree attitude is evident when Denise talks about some of her favorite maneuvers.
"One is a vault catch and release on the uneven bars, and another is a round-off entry vault with a tucked full twist," said Denise with a smile that uncovered a set of dental braces.
And although the routines can often be dangerous, and the personal sacrifices significant, Denise wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's (gymnastics) going to get me where I want to be," she explained. "All I've done until now was to make the national team and it paid off, so I'm happy."