It came down to the beam, the dreaded beam. The most sadistic of gymnastics events, invented one day when a gymnast had done a series of terrific handstands and somersaults on the floor and someone suggested that what would really be impressive is to do that same routine on a slab of wood roughly 4 inches wide and 4 feet or so off the ground.

The phrases "on the beam" and "off the beam" were born, not to mention the nemesis of gymnasts everywhere.Melissa Marlowe had certainly had her run-ins with the dreaded beam.

For years, they had gotten along like, well, like Bela Karolyi and Don Peters. Melissa would be floating along at a meet, about to claim an all-around title, and then, there she was, off the beam. Literally. A fall at the American Cup in 1986, on national TV, cost her first place. A fall in the Champions All Meet in London cost her likewise.

Two years ago at the U.S. national championships she fell off the beam and finished 10th rather than in the top three or four. Then, just last month, at the '88 national championships in Houston, she fell off the beam again. The result: she came into the Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City, her hometown, in 11th position instead of third.

In a combination of her performance at the nationals and the trials, she needed a final finish of sixth or better to make the U.S. Olympic team.

She had her best compulsories ever on Thursday night to nudge into sixth place. Then, Saturday afternoon in the Salt Palace, with national TV tuning in and 9,506 people in the stands, she was hitting the best optional routine of her 16 years. A 9.913 on the uneven bars, her best event; a 9.863 on the vault; a 9.750 on floor exercise.

She was keeping Rhonda Faehn and Kristie Phillips, the No. 7 and No. 8 placers, at bay.

They couldn't catch her if she stayed on the beam. She knew that. They knew that. The only contingency she could absolutely not afford was the half-point deduction she'd get if she fell.

For her part, Melissa was not, at this moment, wondering why her? She was not considering the irony of it all, that it should come down to this, her nemesis. She was not looking at the beam like the Bataan Death march. She was not thinking back to the American Cup or to London.

She was concentrating.

"I wanted it to be the best beam of my life," she said. "That's all I was thinking about."

Did Houston ever cross her mind.

"Uh-uh," she said.

Did the thought that sticking this one itty-bitty beam routine would win her an expense-paid trip to Seoul and an official Adidas U.S. Olympic uniform, and get her out of high school for the entire month of September run at all through her mind?

"Uh-uh."

At 3:10 p.m. she drew a deep breath, got the green flag from the judges - easy for them to say - and climbed on.

Because no one was doing a floor exercise routine at that moment, there was no music playing and the gym was deathly quiet. People were on the edge of their seats - like if Karl Malone was about to shoot a free throw. You could have heard a pin drop in the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle was two blocks away.

Did Melissa hear the sounds of silence.

"Uh-uh."

Did she see Bela Karolyi, the coach of both Faehn and Phillips, make a commotion across the way with the floor exercise judges, and did she hear several pro-Missy people in the stands yell out, "Get outta there Bela!" because they thought he might be going for a little well-timed distraction?

"Uh-uh."

Melissa was unflappable up there on the beam. Her concentration was world-class. She lost her balance slightly about a third of the way into her routine, and quickly regained it. "It was not a panic time," she said, "it was time to get tight and get with it."

She did three backflips without a waver. Then she took a look at the length of the beam before she began her dismount. She drew a deep breath, and dismounted with a perfect landing.

People in the Salt Palace jumped to their feet. So, undoubtedly, did people sitting in their TV rooms from coast to coast, clued in as they were by now as to the paramount importance of Missy getting off that beam in one piece.

Mark Lee, Melissa's coach, and Tammy Biggs, her choreographer, were the first of many hugs.

Then Melissa started to cry.

She'd felt like crying other times after the beam, too, but for entirely opposite reasons.

These were good tears. She kept them in control, but only barely. Not only had she made the United States Olympic Team with America watching, but she had gotten off the beam when she decided. There was a lot to celebrate.