Eight years and about three miles from where she was first introduced to the sport of gymnastics, Melissa Marlowe had her coming-out party Thursday night in the Salt Palace. With a crowd of 7,190 looking on - many of them her closest friends and admirers - Melissa unveiled her latest trick, demonstrating how, in one night, to effectively vault yourself back into Olympic team contention.

She had to jump five places to get back into the rarified air of the Top Six. She was 11th coming in from the national championship meet in Houston, where she fared about as well as an oil salesman; where her Olympics-in-'88 dreams started to get a little fuzzy.But she still had her hole card to play.

The Olympic Trials would be held in her own backyard. In the town where she grew up. And in an arena that she'd passed hundreds of times every year, on her way to shop in the malls or maybe on her way to the airport, or on her way to high school at Rowland Hall.

There would be nothing strange or foreign about the surroundings in the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City, or about the people in the stands, many of whom would not only know Melissa on a first-name basis, but better than that, they'd know her as Missy.

No sooner had the Houston meet had its dreary conclusion than Missy got busy preparing for her homecoming. No way was she going to step into the arena in her hometown looking, or giving, anything but her best. She increased the intensity of her workouts. She lost five pounds, getting back to her peak competitive weight of 96 pounds. She mentally visualized all the positives of having a homecourt advantage.

As the women's Trials began Thursday night there was no doubt that this was, as one sign said, "Marlowe Country."

Another sign said, "Missy, We are so proud of you."

Another said, "Gold For It! Melissa, SLC to Seoul, 1988."

You get the idea. Objectivity had gone right out the Salt Palace windows. Bias was in high fashion. So were hand-held placards in the shape of the state of Utah that said, "Missy Marlow, A Rocky Mountain High."

Much of the sign-hanging credit had to go to one Jeannine Marlowe, Melissa's mother and self-appointed "president of the Missy Marlowe fan club." But as Jeannine explained, she had plenty of help. In the days leading up to the meet, this whole business of rallying behind Salt Lake's best gymnast went absolutely crazy.

"Like, for instance, her club (The Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club) threw this party for her last Saturday night," said Jeannine. "They expected 50 or so people to show up. There were more like 400. It was amazing. It was like somebody put a sign on the highway, `free food."'

The word had spread. Missy was coming home, and a berth in the Olympic Games was on the line.

Missy could have slept in her own bed, but she'd always wanted to stay at Little America - the hotel where the gymnasts are being housed this week. So she took a room there. By Thursday morning she had a hard time moving around the room because of all the flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, posters, cards and other assorted well-wisher gifts that keep pouring in.

Even to a world-class gymnast it's been overwhelming.

"I have a hard time putting it into words, what all this has meant," said Missy. "Every time I walk in the room, there's another couple dozen roses.

"You know," she said, continuing, "I've always had great support from my friends and my family, but, really, a lot of people I know here (in Utah) have never seen me (perform). Now maybe they can understand why I couldn't go out on Friday and Saturday nights, and why I couldn't make a lot of the parties, and why I was always leaving class at 12 o'clock."

This was her excuse.

Ever since she signed up, as an 8-year-old, for a continuing education night class eight years ago at the University of Utah - a beginning gymnastics class that was basically mere tumbling - she's been a practicing gymnast. From that U. of U. beginning she went to a club in Bountiful, where she had 3-hour workouts three or four days a week. Then she went to the Rocky Mountain club, and five-hour workouts five days a week.

She paid her dues, always pointing to when she'd turn 17, in 1988, as her Olympic year.

Now only Saturday's optionals stand between Missy and her goal.

She jumped the needed five spots Thursday night, and into the last qualifying slot of sixth place - much to the delight of the partisan crowd. If she can hold her ground Saturday she's got Seoul made.

She knows what's in store. "It will be the most pressure-packed, tense competition I've ever been in," she says. But she also knows it will be a pressure-packed, tense competition played in her home city on her homecourt. That doesn't clinch the deal, but if Thursday's compulsories are any indication, it can be a major asset. Sometimes when you're home, everything does come up roses.