Today, just hours away from their opening exercises in the U.S. Olympic trials in the Salt Palace, they are a group of individuals, each with her own separate thoughts about how best to become an Olympian.

For a few, like Phoebe Mills, Kelly Garrison-Steves and Hope Spivey, the leaders, that means staying consistent and maintaining the pace that got them here.For most of the others, like ninth-place former national champion Kristie Phillips of the Karolyi Kids and Salt Lake City's Melissa Marlowe, in 11th place for a six-woman team, it means doing things better than they did in the qualifying meet.

By late Saturday afternoon, six of the 22 women who start in tonight's compulsories at 7:30, and two alternates, will be the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team.

Making them feel like a team over the next few weeks prior to the Olympics will be the biggest task for women's team coach Don Peters of Huntington Beach, Calif. "One of my main goals will be to get the kids together," says Peters, whose SCATS club has three of the 22 entrants in tonight's first round.

"We'll start right after this meet. It's a good group of kids, none of the kids are difficult to get along with," Peters says.

Peters would not say the same about Houston's Bela Karolyi, the coach of Mills and Phillips as well as several other contenders. The two coaches frequently trade public insults. But Karolyi, who arrived with his club members in Utah early Wednesday evening, reiterated his plan to stay home from the Olympics no matter how many of his kids make the team.

Karolyi insists he can't help coach from the stands. But he can't be on the floor at the Olympics unless he's coach or assistant coach of the U.S. team. He says he'll stay home with his younger club members and "prepare the next generation for 1992," when he presumes things will be resolved.

Karolyi says he will keep informed on the Olympics. "Sure, I'm going to watch on TV," he said.

When KSL-TV's Steve Cyphers asked him if he'd hug the TV the way he did Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, Karolyi laughed. "I don't believe I'd get pleasure hugging the TV," he admitted.

Once the team is decided following Saturday afternoon's optional round in the Salt Palace, the members will have a few days off to go home, visit friends and families and revel in their accomplishment. Then they'll meet in Charlotte, N.C., for an exhibition. Following that is about 31/2 weeks of training camp at the SCATS club in Huntington Beach.

Then they'll have about 10 days in Seoul, Korea, prior to the start of the 1988 Olympic Games.

For now, though, it's 22 individuals, 22 question marks.

"We'll have a workout in the morning before the meet, which helps. I like that," said Marlowe, who is 0.240 point out of sixth place, according to factored standings based on the qualifying score from the Championships of the USA in Houston. The Houston meet counts 40 percent and the Salt Lake City trials count 60 percent toward making the team. Marlow is .432 out of third place and .656 out of first.

Marlowe planned to spend much of Wednesday night thinking about something other than gymnastics - maybe going to a movie. This morning's workout would bring her back to reality.

"It really is the biggest meet of my life," she says. She hopes to turn that and the fact that all her friends and relatives will be in the audience pulling for her to her advantage. "Having it in the Salt Palace and with the support Utah gives gymnastics is really neat for me," she says.

"I'm trying not to think of it as pressure," she says of wanting to do well at home. "I'm thinking of it more as support and hope to use the crowd to help me rather than make me nervous."

For Spivey, from the Parkettes club in Pennsylvania, being in third place just .008 behind Garrison-Steves is right where she wants to be. "The top three would be really nice, although I'd like to win," she says.

With eight or nine highly talented women so close behind her, Spivey, who is at the peak of her career and conditioning, will go all-out in this meet rather than trying to protect what she had.

She will even add a new full pirouette with a double-back somersault dismount to her uneven bars routine for this meet.

Karolyi said Phillips will be a surprise as she's made it all the way back from weight problems and a year's worth of difficulties. The former national champ has upgraded routines and "is very close to being back in her former shape," Karolyi says. "I believe she will make it; we badly need her," he said.

For 20 of tonight's contestants, the goal is to be in the top six come Saturday afternoon. For two other women, though, it's to be in the top four.

They're the two who petitioned their way into the meet because injury kept them out of the national championships. They are Dee Dee Foster, 16, of Brown's Academy in Florida, who's had an ankle injury, and Sabrina Mar, the 1987 Pan American Games all-around champion from Peters' SCATS.

- Linda Hamilton